Best of the 2011 Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival

The Palm Springs International Film Festival has grown to such remarkable proportions that over 130,000 people attended its 205 films from 69 countries during the Festival’s run of Jan. 6-17. While 41 of the 65 films nominated for the Foreign Film Oscar were unspooled, it was often the movies that were not nominated that impressed this reporter and has him hoping for their domestic distribution so that others might enjoy them.

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The Sound of Noise (Sweden/France/director: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjarne Nilsson)

Hands down, the most innovative and imaginative feature, The Sound of Noise takes five actual percussionists and injects them into a loopy but brilliant feature about anarchist percussionists whose outlandish, flashmob public performances turn a city inside out. The only hope to stop them is a music-hating investigator who is sick of hearing how brilliant his symphony conductor brother is. Joyous, unpredictable filmmaking.

Small Town Murder Songs (Canada/Ed Gass-Donnelly)

Variety named Gass-Donnelly to their 10 Directors to Watch list and rightfully so. He has taken a small town murder story made an indelible impression, with the aid of a totally captivating Peter Stormare as a policeman estranged from his Mennonite community for a previous act of violence. When his ex-girlfriend is involved with the main suspect of a murder, the flawed hero of the tale can barely handle the pressure. Bruce Peninsula’s powerful soundtrack and a fine turn by Martha Plimpton aids the director of this simple but haunting work.

Louder Than a Bomb (USA/Greg Jacobs, Ron Siskel)

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, Louder Than a Bomb is the name of the largest youth poetry slam in the world, held each year in Chicago. The filmmakers follow four young people who converge on Louder Than a Bomb with different family stories and a unified need to express themselves. In addition to their moving personal histories, the doc features some stunning work, rendered in sometimes gut-wrenching performance style, with loud and lasting results.

Hello! How Are You? (Romania/Spain/Italy/Alexandru Maftei)

Before the screening, director Maftei joked this is the only romantic comedy ever made in the history of Romania. That country’s penchant for dark material is subsumed by this offbeat and sexy comedy-drama about a former musician who is relegated to turning pages for a concert pianist and his dry cleaning shop wife, stuck with him in a passionless marriage. Their oversexed son insists on being given a computer which husband and wife use to flirt in chat rooms online…unknowingly with each other. Maftei avoids the cute factor with a winning rom-com unlike any seen on these shores.

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Copacabana (France/Holland/Marc Fitoussi)

French actress Isabelle Huppert has proved she can play any role and here she plays mother to her real-life daughter Lolita Chammah. When wacky but poor mother cannot afford her strait-laced daughter’s upcoming wedding, she takes a miserable job selling timeshares in Oostende, Belgium. Director-writer Fitoussi is never cloying or phony and Huppert’s remarkable performing genes have clearly been passed on to Chammah in this lovely, melancholy slice of domestic life.

Goethe (Germany/Philipp Stolzl)

Beautifully crafted in costuming, location, cinematography and soundtrack, this portrayal of the early years of literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe accents his legal career, the tragic first love of his life and the suicidal urges that led to his initial success with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Alexander Fehling is ably supported by a terrific cast, including Moritz Bleibtrau (Run Lola Run, The Baader Meinhof Complex) as his boss and competition for the hand of a beautiful woman.

The Space Between (USA/Travis Fine)

Recent Golden Globe winner Melissa Leo is having a breakthrough year and in Travis Fine’s sensitively written and directed film, she plays an alcoholic flight attendant on the edge of being terminated. In the days after September 11, 2001 she becomes responsible for a young American Muslim boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center and must be escorted somehow to Los Angeles, where he will attend a special school. Fine’s careful portrayal of the cultural differences and growing respect between the two lead characters set up Leo for a role she effortlessly and powerfully embodies.

The Recipe (South Korea/Anna Lee)

Last year’s South Korean film Mother was this writer’s favorite film of the year and now, director Lee has co-written with Jang Jin a film from that country that almost defies description. It begins as a gentle parody of detective stories, as a Seoul TV journalist tries to find the cook of a beancurd stew soup that is so perfectly made, it instills an otherworldly sense of well-being to those who merely smell it. But without our even noticing, The Recipe shifts to a gorgeous love story that takes on mythic and poetic dimensions that one wants to savor long after the film has ended.

The Double Hour (Italy/Giuseppe Capotondi)

Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is a hotel maid and Guido (Filippo Timi) is a security guard who takes her to the villa he guards, where robbers coincidentally break in. Guido is killed. Or is he? Sonia is in a coma, imagining Guido was killed. We assume. Director Capotondi melds two different versions of reality in this psychological thriller and love story that uses symbology to entrance and trick the viewer in a most challenging and provocative manner.

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Womb (Germany/Hungary/France/Benedek Fliegauf)

Hungarian director Fliegauf makes his English language debut with this mesmerizing, dreamlike and disturbing psychological science fiction film. Eva Green plays a woman who loses her lover (Matt Smith) to a car accident but has him cloned and gives birth to a baby who grows back into the boy and eventually the lover she once knew. The psychosexual tension and madness that permeate the relationship, as Smith’s character begins to question his identity, is fascinating, proving that conceptual sci-fi can be just as gripping as aliens and spaceships.

Alex Gibney, Jack Abramoff and the Corruption of US Politics

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Alex Gibney does not believe in making small, personal documentaries. He pursues outsized figures and major political topics that shape our times. His prolific output includes serving as writer, director and producer on the Oscar-winning exploration of interrogation techniques in Iraq, Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as the indictment of corporate greed and malfeasance in the Oscar-nominated, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and a portrait of one of literary history’s great iconoclasts, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Gibney’s resume includes a Grammy, Emmy, Peabody and the DuPont Columbia Award. His other notable producer credits include No End in Sight, which laid out false assumptions given for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Martin Scorsese’s music series The Blues. His latest film details the larger-than-life, currently jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the financial impediments to true democracy in this country. It is called Casino Jack and the United States of Money and will be released nationally on May 7 from Magnolia Pictures.

But his doc on the lobbyist who helped funnel money to 210 members of Congress, 35 percent of them Democrats, posed more challenges than shooting footage in a war zone. The probes into Abramoff and his money machine eventually resulted in the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and an often cited photo seems to connect Abramoff with then President George W. Bush. But Gibney had to demonstrate his nonpartisan fairness of approach to an imprisoned former Washington insider.

Neil Volz, as a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Ohio congressman Bob Ney, from 1995 to 2002, testified to Team Abramoff’s use of lavish gifts, free trips and tickets to major sporting events, which resulted in both men, depicted as longtime friends, receiving jail sentences. Ney is also featured in Casino Jack, and Gibney feels the only reason Ney agreed to be on film was to have his say, after learning Volz confessed on camera.

Gibney’s challenges did not end there. Abramoff himself agreed to appear in the film. But Gibney was only allowed to talk with him and prevented from even taking in a pencil. Finally, the warden of the prison relented after a protracted battle with first amendment lawyers. Another complication arose when film director George Hickenlooper, planning a film called Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey, announced he had interviewed and filmed Abramoff no less than five times for research. Abramoff’s attorney then notified Gibney he would not be given the opportunity to shoot Abramoff for his doc, which began before Hickenlooper’s project.

“The Department of Justice, in a very heavy handed way, put a lot of pressure on Abramoff,” Gibney said. “And when you’re in prison, you’re in a very vulnerable position. They did not want him to be interviewed.”

Despite Abramoff’s going on record for a feature rather than a doc about his life, Gibney has not only made sense of the internecine flow of lobbying money during the time, but also he has captured the life of Abramoff without missing the bigger picture. “I don’t think Jack Abramoff was a rotten apple,” Gibney asserted. “I think he was spectacular evidence of a rotten barrel.”

Jack Abramoff was part of the process of lobbying in our nation’s capital, one that as of 2008 disperses $3,200,000,000 each year via more than 15,000 lobbyists to influence legislation. But Gibney’s portrait of Abramoff is one that suggests a true believer, a man whose commitment to his ideals took him to some very unique places in life.

Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills and was a record-setting high school wrestler. He became Chairman of the College Young Republican National Committee. In 1985, he got involved with Citizens for America (CFA), a group that raised funds for “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua. Abramoff supported brutal opposition leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Abramoff left CFA after being accused of mismanaging funds and found an appropriately related field as President of Regency Entertainment, where he produced the anti-Communist action film Red Scorpion with muscleman-turned-actor Dolph Lundgren.

In 1994, Abramoff began lobbying and as Gibney’s documentary shows, his manipulation of funds resulted in improper use of Indian gaming revenue, deals with shadowy Russian energy companies and in the most outlandish segment of the film, a foray into the commonwealth of the Northern Mariannas Islands. The latter project, which utilized DeLay, claimed that clothing manufactured in NMI was “made in the USA” due to a trade law loophole. The sweatshop atmosphere included female workers being paid a pittance and literally chained to their sewing machines.

Casino Jack staggers the imagination, for Abramoff also has a connection to the fraudulent purchase of a gambling boat enterprise. When owner Gus Boulis would not sell, he was shot to death. The film also details the less-than-holy trinity of Abramoff and archconservatives Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, and how they benefited from the cash that was generated.

Gibney does not believe that lobbying in itself is unjust. He sees political campaign finance reform as the linchpin for a more representational democracy. “Where it becomes a problem is this system of legalized bribery,” he said, a term that he has regularly used in the promotion of Casino Jack, “that we have in this country, which will only become worse now with the recent Supreme Court decision [equating financial contributions with free speech]. Because you have congressmen and senators who have to raise so much money that they have to spend two to three days out of every working week dialing for dollars or going to fundraisers. We’re paying them to raise money. We’re not paying them to govern any more.”

It’s no surprise that with a story and central character this complex, Gibney’s original cut was three hours and the one shown at the Sundance Film Festival, slightly over two hours, was edited again. Gibney understood that he was moving away from Abramoff’s personal story in a version of Casino Jack that followed a stunning tributary: Abramoff also fed money toward the Medicare Modernization Act, a huge subsidy paid by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to the federal government to prevent the latter from negotiating prices directly with drug manufacturers.

There is a limit, no matter how judicious a film’s construction, to audience comprehension. In the case of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney manages to entertain as well as enlighten, with humorous images of key lobbying figures appearing on slot machines and clips from films of yesteryear. But with current outrage about derivatives, bailouts for banks “too big to fail” and countries like Iceland and Greece teetering on the edge of insolvency, a hardened look at the effects of lobbying in the richest country on Earth can hopefully have an impact on issues like earmarks in legislation, more disclosure in lobbying and, as previously noted, the dysfunctional system of campaign finance. Jack Abramoff, scheduled to be released in a few months, is just one of the more interesting symptoms of a structural disease in American politics. “But then,” Gibney summarizes, “corruption happens when you believe so much in your essential goodness, that you think you can’t do anything bad.”

[Below: the currently incarcerated Jack Abramoff]

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Best of Palm Springs Short Film Fest ‘09

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Our Neck of the Woods 

The 2009 version of the Palm Springs International ShortFest and Short Film Market is concluded and, as the largest festival of its kind in North America, press more easily can navigate the 315 films via not only the programs at the Camelot Theatres multiplex but their film library, abuzz each day with buyers, filmmakers and press.

Over the past 14 years, 64 films screened here have gone on to garner Academy Award consideration. Among the most notable films:

Sparks (USA, dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt) The Shooting Stars section of the Fest has radically improved, as evidenced by Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. His editing as well of this Elmore Leonard adaptation is snappy and vibrant, as fire investigator Eric Stoltz thinks sexy rock star Carla Gugino purposely burned her house down in the middle of a larger fire and he thinks he’s going to find out while drinking excessively with her. Gordon-Levitt (TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) sure learned a lot from starring in Scott Frank’s The Look Out and a feature from him will hopefully be warming up in the wings.

Cages (Mexico, dir. Juan Jose Medina) Winner of the Best Animated Short, Medina’s eerie and fascinating ten minute film follows an old man who traps desert creatures, only to find an entity not of this Earth is trying to lay a trap for him.

Red Flag (USA, dir. Sheila Curran Dennin) A seemingly normal woman (Nell Gwynn) goes out on a series of blind dates where red flags literally pop out of the unacceptable men she meets. When Mr. Right appears, she waits expectantly for him to do something wrong. A charmer, attractively shot.

Found (Canada, dir. Paramita Nath) The most visually remarkable short of those screened, Found is nonfiction lyricism, a short doc on Toronto poet Suvankham Thammavongsa, who explores her father’s discarded scrapbook that documents the family’s escape from Laos in the 1970s. Nath utilizes live action, animation, old movies and text with a searing impact and Thammavongsa tells us how her family could not afford the equivalent of $2.50 to go to a hospital when she born, a baby born “about the size of a pop can.”

The Clockmaker’s Revelation (Mexico, dir. Paula Froehle) Director Froehle has created a wonderfully dreamy short of a female clockmaker whose supernatural thoughts accompany her during her work. With lush music and the image of grandfather clocks with curtains providing a view into another dimension, this is a film that is contemplative and relaxing, despite its allegorical wonder.

Our Neck of the Woods (USA, dir. Rob Connolly) Connolly won the Best Short Award at Sundance with Our Neck of the Woods, an offbeat but carefully observed slice of life. A foreman (a very sympathetic Nathan Johnson) at a plant that spray paints lawn decorations in the shape of deer falls for a new employee, a girl from the Russian republic of Georgia. Married, he still wants to save her from the soul deadening of the job and plans to steal money to send her away. With the deer spontaneously bursting into flames and an alternate reality heard over the plant loudspeaker, Connolly shows a wicked, smart wit.

The Happiness Salesman (United Kingdom, dir. Krishnendu Majumdar) Christopher Eccleston, tremendously effective in films like Jude and Elizabeth, struts his stuff as a possible door-to-door Satan who tempts a young women with a constantly crying baby to trade her soul for an ideal future, which he can show her on a laptop. Majumdar nails the creep factor of Steve Gomez’s script and raises the hair on the back of the neck with a terrific take on an old theme.

Once Upon a Crime (USA, dir. Lilli Birdsell) This combination of black and white live action, art and animation poses a hard-nosed female prosecutor against Snow White, who is condemned for her connection to a case that allegedly involves necrophilia, animal cruelty and child endangerment. Birdsell has found a visually arresting way to wring more humor out of a storybook character.

Abuelo/Grandfather (USA, dir. Mary Anne Kellogg) Kellogg, a choreographer and former dancer for Twyla Tharp and Pilobolus Dance Troupes, impresses in her first film. It’s an endearing tale of a 12-year-old girl (the gifted Britt Flatmo), whose mother has recently died and rejects her Spanish speaking Argentinian grandfather during his visit, until he warms her heart again by teaching her to dance the tango.

You’re Outa Here (US, dir. George Griffin) A hilarious, high-speed blast of jazz, with lyrics and singing by Lorraine Feather, inspired by Fats Waller’s music. It’s a blend of stylized animation detailing all the reasons why the central character must kick her boyfriend out the front door. A rare instance of song lyrics and visuals kicking serious comedy butt simultaneously.

Boarding Pass/Pasaje (Puerto Rico, dir. Ana Clavell) Another terrific animated short, but here, Clavell’s soft focus imagery hits the audience hard, as we see the withering away of a young girl, Marysol,whose mother, already gone, had passed on AIDS to her. Despite its uplifting and poetic ending, Boarding Pass is an important reminder that animation can deal with crucial, disturbing issues often untouched in live action.

Spring Film Roundup

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Throw Down Your Heart 

Anticipation can be a joyously agonizing pastime. In the case of Sascha Paladino’s documentary about banjo maestro Bela Fleck’s journey to Africa to explore the origins of that instrument, the wait will be worth it. Paladino’s first film won the Audience Award at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival and it opens no sooner than April 24 in New York and June 5 in Los Angeles. But Fleck, who has won 11 Grammys in more categories than anyone in music history, let his music, as well as that of musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, speak volumes, rather than having an intrusive voice over.

It is the perfect decision, for the easy-going, almost shy Fleck has an innate ability to merge his prowess with others in a magical cohesiveness, whether it is with a twelve-foot ground-based xylophone, with the akonting, thought to be the original banjo, or with the heartbreaking, beautiful voice of Mali singer Oumous Sangare. There are some gorgeously edited sequences, courtesy of Paladino, Fleck and Scott Burgess and no one will ever be able to question the expertise sound mixers Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko, who get crystalline sound whether outdoors or in a rudimentary and crowded hut. www.throwdownyourheart.com

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Adoration

Atom Egoyan has a history of adapting work to film that has novelistic twists and character complexities, as in his astonishing version of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Here, Egoyan writes, produces and directs, again with an eye toward the malleability of truth and personal responsibility. A young man, Simon (Devon Bostick) is encouraged by his teacher (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) to use his imagination in the telling of a horrifying tale: that of an unknowing woman whose husband plants a bomb in her baggage as she boards a plane, in an act of sub rosa terrorism. Simon, in trying to understand his own fractured family history,then pretends this story, told in a classroom, really took place and disseminates it in an Internet chatroom, prompting an outpouring of strong responses from the community.

Egoyan is a master at gradually connecting character histories and Adoration is no exception. Khanjian as always impresses and Bostick, despite his youth, has a dark-eyed, intense charisma that the camera loves. As with The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat, Egoyan’s complex rumination on the Armenian genocide of 1915, Adoration plumbs the depths of his characters’ psyches without ever seeming to be subject to the often tedious laws of exposition. (Sony Classics, May 18)

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Sleep Dealer

On a limited budget, writer-director-editor Alex Rivera has crafted a disturbingly imaginative science fiction nightmare that takes on virtual reality, immigration, global water rights, the exploitation of Third World labor and more. Rivera and co-writer David Riker create a world in which Mexican laborers get “node jobs,” ports inserted into their bodies so that they can remotely do industrial labor jobs in the US while actually working in virtual reality factories south of our border. Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Pena) leaves his tiny village, where one must pay to get access to water at a high-tech, militarized dam, and heads to Tijuana. His father was killed by US missiles, after Memo tapped into a military network with electronic equipment.

Instead of “coyotes” leading Mexicans illegally across the border, “coyoteks” lead poor Mexicans to the new Tijuana, in search of better-paying but dangerous work in virtual factories. It is here Memo meets Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), a failing writer who secretly publishes tales of Memo’s life, inadvertently connecting Memo to the Mexican-American pilot (Jacob Vargas) who killed his father. Admittedly, Rivera cuts some corners regarding, ironically, plot connectivity. But Sleep Dealer is the kind of film that is so startling in its vision, especially a perfect ending image, that its weaknesses are easily forgiven and its concepts not easily forgotten. (Maya Entertainment, April 18)

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Hunger 

Previously reviewed at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hunger is in current release. The directorial debut of Irish visual artist Steve McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment. (IFC Films)

2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival

One wonders how much bigger the Palm Springs International Film Festival can get. Unlike our economy, it seems to grow and prosper every year, and the 2009 version sported 208 films from 73 countries and set, once again, records for attendance and box office. Among the Oscar-winning and –nominated celebrities who were honored at the Gala were director Ron Howard and Sean Penn, an odds-on favorite for the lead role he played in Milk.

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$9.99 (Israel, dir: Tatia Rosenthal) This stop-motion puppet animation feature is constantly surprising and extremely evocative. It is set among the denizens of a Tel Aviv apartment building, and based on the stories of Etger Keret, who co-directed last year’s delightful Israeli bit of magical realism, Jellyfish. Here, we have the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Anthony Lapaglia and masterful work from director Tatia Rosenthal who brings an emotional depth to animated features rarely seen on these shores.

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The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany, dir: Uli Edel) A leading candidate for the Academy Award for Foreign Film, Uli Edel’s sweeping history of the 70s revolutionary movement, the Red Army Faction, features a blistering pace and some absolutely astounding scenes of street violence. Making the true story all the more fascinating is the conviction of German journalist Ulrike Meinhof who gives up her career to join the ultra-violent leftist group, which spawns imitators, even while it is being systematically being taken apart by the state.

Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (U.S., dir: Roberta Grossman) A heartbreaking and seemingly impossible story lies at the heart of this documentary, narrated by Joan Allen. Hannah Senesh, a 23-year-old Hungarian Jew living in Palestine in 1944, returns to her homeland to fight the Nazi occupation. Her one-day encounter with her brother and imprisonment near the cell of her mother, as well as her execution even as the Reich is crumbling make up a true life tale as tragic as it is hard to believe. Grossman’s recreations are tastefully shot and Senesh’s poetry beautifully completes this harrowing doc.

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Cherry Blossoms (Germany, dir: Dorris Dorrie) Writer-director Dorrie creates a beautifully shot tale of a German man whose wife does not tell him he has a brief time to live. They travel to Japan to visit an estranged son, where the wife suddenly dies and her husband forges a bond with homeless young woman who performs Butoh dance in a public park. Elmar Wepper and Aya Irizuki make a special onscreen, cross-cultural, father-daughter type impact that is undeniably affecting.

A Deal is a Deal (United Kingdom, dir: Jonathan Gershfield) Mackenzie Crook plays an Underground train driver who has two people die in front of his train and learns he can richly retire if a third happens to die in the following week. Enter belligerent Irish rapscallion Colm Meaney, who agrees to commit suicide for money and then makes Crook jump through hoops to accommodate him. Imelda Staunton has a nice turn as a jilted wife in this heartfelt and clever black comedy.

Four Nights with Anna (Poland, dir: Jerzy Skolimowski) After a long absence of more than 15 years, Skolimowsi has come roaring back with a haunting tale of a Polish crematorium worker who may or may not have raped a woman who lives near him in a village. His obsession grows to the point that he continually sneaks into her home, watches her sleep and putters about her home without ever waking her. Having co-written Knife in the Water for Roman Polanski, Skolimowski knows how to create almost unbearable tension, which he does here most ably.

The Friend (Switzerland, dir: Micha Lewinsky) The Oscar submission from Switzerland, The Friend is a drama with a sly wit, as a shy young man (Philippe Graber) falls for a depressed singer who has him pretend he is her boyfriend, just before she commits suicide. Unable to tell her family of their arrangement, he winds up comforting them and getting deeper and deeper into lies, as the dead girl’s sister falls in love with him. Nuanced performances all around make this an engrossing film with a quiet but insistent tension throughout.

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Hunger (Ireland, dir: Steve McQueen) The directorial debut of visual artist McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment.

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Last Stop 174 (Brazil, dir: Bruno Barreto) Another Oscar submission that certainly deserved at least a nomination, Bruno Barreto’s Last Stop 174 is a staggering fictional account of an actual bus hijacking in 2000 Rio de Janeiro. But Barreto makes the standoff the very last part of a story in which a woman is convinced that a street urchin (the magnificent Michel Gomes) is her biological son and his spurned love for a streetwalker shatters his hopes for a peaceful and stable life.

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Mermaid (Russia, dir: Anna Melikyan) Magical realism melds with the fertile visual imagination of writer-director Anna Melikyan in this sweetly tragic tale of a young girl (Masha Shalaeva) who stops speaking and only regains the ability when she falls in love with a handsome but nefarious young man in Moscow. The fantasy sequences and telekinetic powers of the lead character perfectly accent this colorful, resplendent feature.

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The Necessities of Life (Canada, dir: Benoit Pilon) Winner of the Palm Springs Jury Award and yet another Oscar submission, this elegiac period piece follows an Inuit named Tiivii who is taken from his family to recuperate from tuberculosis in a 1952 Quebec City, where no one speaks his language. A young, dying Inuit boy, also hospitalized, gives him the strength to perservere in this carefully crafted drama.

No Subtitles Necessary: Lazlo and Vilmos (U.S., dir: James Chressanthis) A terrific documentary about two world-class cinematographers and lifelong friends, Vilmos Szigmond and the late Lazlo Kovacs. Their stunning tale of risking their lives to smuggle out footage of the 1956 Soviet invasion of their Hungarian homeland is in marked contrast to their gorgeous filmwork, including, for Lazlo, Easy Rider and Frances, and for Vilmos, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Deer Hunter. Among those honoring their lives and work are critic Todd McCarthy, Dennis Hopper, director Mark Rydell, Karen Black, Sharon Stone and fellow top-notch d.p., Vittorio Storaro.

Tear This Heart Out (Mexico, dir: Roberto Sneider) Among the nine shortlisted films for the Oscar was this sumptuous, 1930s period epic, following the marriage of a beautiful young girl to a brutal, upwardly mobile general who has his eye on the presidency of Mexico. The music, architecture and clothing of the period perfectly accent the fine work of all, especially Ana Claudia Talancon, who portrays the central character, from ages 15-30, amid the murder, betrayal and infidelity she has married into and cannot leave.

Top Ten Films of 2008

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 [Waltz with Bashir]

No top ten film list is really worth one thin dime if it does not grapple with comedy versus drama, animation vs. live action, documentary vs. narrative, studio vs. independent and yes, American versus the rest of the film world. Support these films in their video life and they might just cut back on making lame, bloated superhero cookie cutter epics. Unless you like that sort of thing. In which case, what are you doing reading this?

1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. He visits others, trying to piece together his past, intermingled with fantasy sequences that startle and fascinate the viewer. Folman punctuates the search for a solution to Middle East peace with a startling, last-minute transition to live action, made all the more powerful by the recent Hamas-Israeli eruption of seemingly never-ending violence.

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2. The Girl Cut in Two (dir. Claude Chabrol) Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this brilliant work.

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3. Mister Foe (dir. David Mackenzie) Also known as Hallam Foe, played by Jamie Bell, a 17-year-old who suspects his father of killing his mother, sleeps with his stepmother, runs off to Edinburgh and lives on the street and rooftops, until he spots a woman who is the spitting image of his mother in her late 20s. Kate (Sophia Myles) hires him at the hotel where she is in charge of human resources and finds herself drawn to him, even as she is involved with a married man. Mackenzie’s script captures a young man’s obsession, charm and, inevitably, a surprising twist on his sexuality to boot. Add a terrific UK indie soundtrack that shifts perfectly with the moods of the film—and won an award at Berlin—and you have a coming-of-age story that breaks new ground…and one’s heart.

4. Mongol (dir. Sergei Bodrov) Nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar for Kazhakstan, a winner with the National Board of Review, Mongol is all that an historical epic should be: lushly shot, powerful in its action sequences yet not so oversized that it does not connect to human emotions. Bodrov manages all this in telling the story of the persecution and ascendancy of no less than Genghis Khan, not generally associated with the woebegone. In the process of his conquering half the known world in the 13th century, we see this freed slave in action sequences that are not so much loud and large as thrilling, abetted by the remarkable scenery of Mongolia, at times in places where roads had to be built during production.

5. The Counterfeiters (dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky) Is there anything more treacherous, more deserving of easy condemnation than another Holocaust film that breaks no new ground, but merely elicits simple tears? Ruzowitzky’s unique yet nerve-wracking film of the largest counterfeiting ring in history, run from a concentration camp, is based on fact. Karl Markovics plays the Jewish counterfeiter who must fake UK, then US currency or die at the hands of the Nazis, and he is always engrossing. August Diehl is his equal, as the lone member of the team who would rather die—and jeopardize the lives of all the counterfeiters—than cooperate with the Reich. The film poses a do-or-die dilemma that made other harrowing Holocaust films, like the adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, so excruciatingly memorable.

6. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton) By now, we have all come to acknowledge the artistry—both visually and in storytelling, that Pixar has brought to the moviedoing public. But with Wall-E, they have gone a few steps farther. Not only does the film open with no dialogue and the establishment of a robot, a cockroach and an earth besmirched, but it winds up, astoundingly yet workably, in outer space, lambasting humans who have grown fat, lazy and driven around by technology. Its unique structure, typically gorgeous art design and welcome social commentary all combine to make this a very special jewel in the Pixar crown.

7. Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris) No one expects Morris to top his Oscar-winning feature documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, but with this fascinating examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, as well its manipulation and coverup, he has again done something both profound and mesmerizing with the form. Not only will those searching for demons find them in the film, but Morris’ “visual analogies” and a tremendous score by Danny Elfman highlight a doc that does so many things: It exposes how widespread the military knowledge was about prisoner abuse, how inadequately run the prison was and, most importantly, how the framing of a photo or an issue determines the guilt or innocence of those involved.

8. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) Howard should be roundly commended and future filmmakers should take note that successful stage plays, like Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon will likely do better adapted by the playwright and featuring the same leads, in this case, living legend Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who has gone from nailing Tony Blair to capturing talk show host David Frost with great acumen. Not only does Langella capture the egotism of Nixon but something more, the sense, inevitably, of failing his mission as a president, and it makes the denouement of this sharply paced and observed film, with great help from Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones and others, strike a deep chord of wounded memory, befitting a film about the legacy of the Watergate break-in.

9. Choke (dir. Clark Gregg) Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and marvelous Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

10. Adam Resurrected (, dir.Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

(Honorable Mention: Elegy, In Bruges, Kabluey, Madagascar 2, Milk)

AFI Film Festival: Worldly Pleasures

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[Waltz with Bashir]

The AFI Film Festival is that rare chance to look at some of the early contenders for Best Foreign Film Oscar, as well as upcoming American fare. Among the most impressive—and most overrated—at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood recently:

Waltz with Bashir (France-Germany-Israel, Dir: Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. Folman punctuates the search for truth with surreal, startling, dreamlike imagery, like a soldier swimming away from danger nestled into the body of a naked, giant woman or matter-of-fact war atrocities to the accompaniment of heavy metal guitar. The film has garnered fury in Israel among hawkish elements but Folman has courageously and ingeniously created a plea for conscience in the world’s most troubled region.

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O’Horten (France-Germany-Norway, Dir: Bent Hamer) Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer has a way of creating elegantly crafted and subtly offbeat character studies that stir the heart. Here, a shy, lonely train engineer (Espen Skjonberg) reaches retirement and in traipsing around Oslo, finds himself opening up to life possibilities that would never have occurred before. With sly humor and a willingness to embrace the loss of family and a newfound and wacky friend, the titular character pulls us into his expanding world and makes us delighted for the chances he finally is willing to take.

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Everlasting Moments (Sweden-Denmark, Dir: Jan Troell) Oscar nominated for his direction and adapted screenplay for The Emigrants, Jan Troell has returned with heartfelt story, inspired by his own family heritage. In the early 20th century in Malmo, Sweden, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) battles the pressures of a growing family, a philandering brute of a husband and the love of a man she cannot be with by exploring her creativity with a still camera. Troell captures the passage of time brilliantly, through the First World War and technological inventions, as the captivating Heiskanen anchors this lovely, aching tale.

Adam Resurrected (Germany-USA, Dir: Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

The Brothers Bloom (USA, Dir: Rian Johnson) Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody portray two brothers who are inseparable, despite friction, and survive by pulling major cons. However, when Brody’s character falls for a daffy but brilliant, heiress (the marvelous Rachel Weisz) who is their next mark, allegiances are tested. Rian Johnson muddies the logic of some of the actual scams but what works best here is the camaraderie, the stunning locations and droll, visual jokes that make the scams take a back seat to the characters and dialogue.

The Class (France, Dir: Laurent Cantet) A winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The Class is curiously overhyped. It is a competent though claustrophobic examination of a teacher (Francois Begaudeau) who grapples with tough, multicultural kids in Parisian public school. Director Cantet has smartly used an actual teacher and his students in recreating this world and their work on camera is never dull. But long scenes in classes and teacher conferences makes the work less than exciting and shaky camera work, to emulate the feel of a documentary, does not help.

Time Crimes (Spain, Dir: Nacho Vigalondo) A little mind-teaser of a film that works nicely, at least for a while. A man stumbles into a series of accidents that are, in fact, created by multiple versions of himself, having traveled back briefly in time. His effort to eliminate other versions of himself, with the reluctant help of a lab techinician who got the whole mess rolling in the first place, is more of a puzzle that’s missing pieces than it is a fully-fledged film. But it does bring up some intriguing possibilities in the genre of time travel stories and might well please die-hard science fiction fanatics.

The Higher Force (Iceland, Dir: Olaf de Fleur Johannesson) We begin with an amusing premise, an incompetent mob bagman in Iceland who pretends he knows a powerful mobster, in actuality, a man who years before accidentally killed his brother in an auto accident But The Higher Force runs out of steam and ends with an uncertain flourish. Along the way, there are a number of laughs, including ridiculous clothes, absurdly fractured pidgin English and a self-motivation tape that never really helps the incompents in the story. Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame makes an out-of-left-field appearance as—what else—a mobster. What’s criminal is that Johannesson and his two co-scripters couldn’t keep the fun and twists going for more than half of the film.

The Joys and Confusions of Charlie Kaufman’s Brain

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Synecdoche, New York
Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Opens Oct. 24 (Sony Pictures Classics)

“Peculiar” or “avant-garde” do not seem to sum up the curious fixations that make up the screenwriting of Charlie Kaufman. Beginning with Being John Malcovich, filmgoers have come to expect no one else to come close to what he does, whether you call it “alternate reality comedic self-loathing” or “existential absurdist ennui” or anything else.

When he reached, thus far, the peak of his screenwriting powers with Adaptation–starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, both bravely assaying fascinating but extremely unflattering roles–one came to expect an event each time a new film of his reached release. With Synecdoche, New York, which began as a supposed horror film Kaufman was to write for his director of choice, Spike Jonze, all the Kaufmanesque qualities are present: terrific performances from top actors, dark, death-obsessed humor and a mindbending premise.

In this case, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden, a stage director in Schenectady, New York, who feels little passion for his projects and is more taken with his deteriorating health than his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) or his young daughter Olive. The dissolution of that union is coupled with Caden winning a MacArthur grant and using an enormous warehouse in New York City to recreate scenes from his life, with scores of actors, in an effort to understand it.

Scenes as they happen are recreated in the warehouse, including Caden’s seduction by the offbeat Hazel ( a marvelously idiosyncratic Samantha Morton), a later marriage to one of his actresses, Claire (Michelle Williams) and the use of a potentially non-existent cleaning lady-cum-actress (Dianne Wiest) who inevitably gives Caden directions at the end of his project and life.

There are many typically daffy visual jokes that Kaufman inserts, including a constantly smoldering house that Hazel lives in, and commentaries on Caden’s desperately unhappy life on animated programs on TV. As with Kaufman’s work in general, there is much to mull over but the great difference between Synecdoche, New York and the rest of Kaufman’s wonderfully warped work is that here, he is the director and no was able to help him prune and shape his hallucinatory perambulations or tonally unify the entire work.

Thus, we do not have the tightly knit internal logic of a film like Adaptation or the surreal but cogent The Truman Show, in which a seemingly impossible world unfolds with acceptable progress. The most basic problem is that a MacArthur grant would not fund a Caden or anyone else for a massive art project for the rest of one’s life. And Kaufman is not really interested in seeing how anything outside of Caden’s orbit might affect this utterly self-involved navel-gazing. By extending the timeline of the film to Caden’s entire life and never showing insight on the part of the character, the director-writer exhausts us and the titillation of his clever concept grows wearying.

What Kaufman does right is bring in excellent actors and Hoffman’s power onscreen, whether crying before sex or being unable to respond to the cruelty of Keener as his wife (And isn’t it time Keener stopped playing the uber-bitch?), makes the film work in small pieces. But as a whole, with cloying music and many scenes that smack of melodrama, Kaufman has lost what he so perfected in his previous scripts. There is no sympathy to be had for Caden, who bemoans his loneliness and creates his own world-within-a-world merely to examine himself and come up with no conclusions.

L.A. Film Fest, Declaring Independence

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[The Girl Cut in Half, directed by Claude Chabrol] 

Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran June 19-29 at a variety of theatres throughout Westwood, also included a number of panels, poolside chats and a film financing conference, scattered about the its West Los Angeles radius.

The Girl Cut in Half, dir. Claude Chabrol

Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this clever work.

Choke, dir. Clark Gregg

Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and brilliant Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The marvelously whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, dir. Stefan Forbes

From a poor Southern boy who loved the blues, Lee Atwater climbed to the highest rungs of political power in America, ably shown by this attractively made documentary by Stefan Forbes. It follows the charming but cold-blooded Atwater, as his smear campaigns destroy Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The man who taught Karl Rove dirty tricks also loved playing guitar and this doc has the coolest blues soundtrack you will ever hear on a political documentary. Forbes did miss the opportunity to explain more fully the complex relationship Atwater had with Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager who gave Atwater his big break. But with on-camera interviews with Dukakis, Sam Donaldson, Mary Matalin, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman and others, it’s hard to quibble with a film that captures the elevation of no-holds-barred politics and the illness, swift downfall and strange legacy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Man on a Wire, dir. James Marsh

Winning an audience award at the L.A. Film Fest, Man on a Wire follows the illegal but stunning high wire walk of French aerialist Philippe Petit, between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is clearly an antic, fun-loving character who is quite engaging on camera, as well as in an audience, as he handled a Q&A after the screening. But director James Marsh spends a bit too much time with the logistics of the planning of this death-defying act. By the time these pranksters are about to let Petit take his life into his hands, the film certainly has us where it wants us. Significantly, though, Petit on camera talks of his love relationship dissolving, as well as the friendship with his best friend and planning cohort. The staggering dare that Petit took has been described as “the artistic crime of the century,” but it is fair to say there is a crime in Marsh not digging deeper into the psychological after affects of Petit’s high wire act.

The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, dir. Jeff Stimmel

Suffering a similar lack of depth is this upcoming HBO doc. It follows New York visual artist Chuck Connelly, who soared high along with names like Schnabel and Basquiat, only to hit rock bottom in marketability. His drunken rages and childish behavior are amusing, even endearing for a while. And the breadth of his artistic vision is most impressive. Where the documentary itself fails, though, is in showing us a deeper and darker place in this artist’s psyche, one that is only hinted at after his love relationship breaks up. While not wholly satisfying, the film does show a great variety of Connelly’s considerable work. But shedding a tear at the grave of your family is no substitute for a more soul-searching investigation of a great artist and his demise.

 [Choke, directed by Clark Gregg]

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George Carlin: Before and After

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The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.

“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say…” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.

That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.

George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM & AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.

I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”

George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”

The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.

I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.

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