Adapted from Adolf Burger’s memoir The Devil’s Workshop, this skillful, absorbing, Oscar-winning Austrian feature involves a Russian-Jewish counterfeiter (expertly played by Karl Markovics) who gets arrested in Berlin, winds up in a German concentration camp in 1944, and is put in charge of a secret forgery unit. Staffed by prisoners who’ve been granted special privileges, the unit counterfeits pounds and dollars in a plan to wreck the British and American economies, and one of the prisoners, a member of the communist resistance, attempts to sabotage the effort. Written and directed by the able Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Inheritors), this poses some tricky moral questions, and its troubling ambiguities rank a cut above the dubious uplift of Schindler’s List. In German with subtitles. R, 98 min. (JR)
This drama about Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) being groomed essentially as prostitutes to service Henry VIII (Eric Bana) might have qualified as some sort of bodice ripper/history lesson. But despite a certain amount of moral outrage and good performances from the lead actresses, it’s neither sexy enough to qualify as good trash nor serious enough to pass for history. (For starters, according to many sources, the real Mary was older than Anne, not younger, and far more promiscuous than she is here.) At least the script, adapted by Peter Morgan (The Queen) from a Philippa Gregory novel, explains how the Church of England came into being. The competent but stiff direction is by Justin Chadwick; with David Morrissey and Kristin Scott Thomas. PG-13, 115 min. (JR)
This is my fifth column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, which ran in their February 2008 issue. Incidentally, any Americans who might still be skeptical about the multiracial and multicultural composition of the Iranian population are urged to check out the CIA’s web site on this matter: page down to Iran’s ethnic groups, where you’ll find “Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%,” and compare this to their 2007 estimates for the U.S. (”white 79.96%, black 12.85%, Asian 4.43%, Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%, native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.8%, two or more races 1.61%” — something I wish I’d known about when I was having my editorial dispute at the Reader. — J.R.
After reflecting in my last column about the “attractions and perils of internationalism,” I’ve been pondering how to distinguish these concerns from those of language, race, and ethnicity. The lack of a common ground in discussing some issues only adds to the confusion. Some months ago, I was shocked when my editor at the Chicago Reader, a weekly “alternative” newspaper where I’ve worked since 1987 (and from which I’m preparing to retire as a staff member in early 2008), eliminated a phrase from an article in which I asserted that Iran was just as multicultural and as multiracial as the U.S., telling me that I couldn’t make such an assertion unless I could back it up. When I countered that my own visit to Iran in 2001 and many conversations I’d had with Iranians and Westerners who’d visited the country supported my impression, making it a commonplace observation, and cited the Kurdish, Afghan, and Turkish characters in Taste of Cherry as one everyday illustration of what I meant, she replied that none of this constituted hard evidence, and simply to cite subjective experiences was irresponsible. In other words, I wasn’t even entitled to be wrong about making my assertion.
The facts that a crowd-pleaser such as Jafar Panahi’s Offside was shown in U.S. art cinemas rather than multiplexes and that the animated “Iranian” feature Persepolis is about to open in the U.S. with French dialogue and English subtitles both seem to point to related default attitudes about the demonization of Iran in American culture. In 2004, a New York publisher planned to print a collection of contemporary Iranian literature in English translation, only to discover that because Iran was on America’s enemies list, they had to get a permit from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control or face $1 million fines and ten-year prison sentences. The publisher saw this as a violation of the First Amendment and filed a lawsuit in federal court — saying in effect to the Bush government, like the title hero of Dirty Harry, “Make my day.” Ten weeks later the Treasury Department, without responding directly to the lawsuit, issued a general license that allowed the publisher to “freely engage in most ordinary publishing activities” involving countries on the enemies list, and the collection came out in 2005.
Another unproven piece of common knowledge about Iran which my editor didn’t object to me citing is that most of the films seen today in Tehran are pirated, unsubtitled videos of brand-new Hollywood features. This makes it all the more tragic that a major Iranian filmmaker like Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been forced into exile by censorship, and has suffered artistically as a consequence — just as Samuel Fuller suffered after he moved to Europe following the refusal in 1982 of Paramount to release White Dog (another form of censorship). For me, Makhmalbaf’s non-Iranian films (e.g., Kandahar, Sex & Philosophy, and Scream of the Ants) have all been decidedly inferior to his best work, just as Fuller’s Les Voleurs de la nuit, Street of No Return, and The Madonna and the Dragon pale in comparison to The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, and White Dog, and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and The Sacrifice are hardly the equals of Andrei Rublev and Stalker. Maybe this is because these filmmakers are inseparable from their native countries — perhaps to the same degree as Ozu and Mizoguchi, who never made any films abroad.
Of course, this isn’t true of many other major filmmakers. Chaplin, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Renoir, Rossellini, Stroheim, Welles, and (more recently) Costa, Hou, Portabella, and Verhoeven have all benefited as well as suffered from working abroad. And Buñuel, who may be quintessentially Spanish, made only three films that could be described as exclusively Spanish.
From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 2008). I believe this was my last long review before I left my staff job there. — J.R.
CHARLIE BARTLETT ***
Directed by Jon Poll
I just rewatched Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, a radical and rebellious teen movie I gave four stars in 1990. I think it holds up, and apparently I’m not the only one: the average rating of the 62 customer reviews it has on Amazon.com is four and a half out of five stars.
The new rebellious teen movie Charlie Bartlett isn’t as good or as radical; it’s more an edgy comedy than a rabble-rouser. But it reminded me of Pump Up the Volume in many ways: it’s one of the first features for a middle-aged director; it captures teenage despair leading up to a suicide attempt (successful in Pump Up the Volume, unsuccessful here); one of its lead characters has a school administrator as a father (the hero in Pump Up the Volume, the heroine here); and it depicts a general disgruntlement about the way schools are run, culminating in a student uprising. The movies are even comparably derivative of others: Pump Up the Volume plundered some of its best ideas from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band, Network, and Talk Radio, while Charlie Bartlett seems especially indebted to Mumford, all the way down to its final blackout gag.
Charlie Bartlett might not be as bold as its predecessor. Yet given how politically gutless most teen movies have become, it may provoke audiences as much as Moyle’s movie did 18 years ago. I’ve lost count of the number of times its opening has been delayed since I first saw it last July, so clearly it has somebody worried that its defiant spirit will cut into its profitability — which is entirely to its credit.
The satirical plot flaunts taboos about social class, psychiatry, and drugs. The title hero (Anton Yelchin) lives in a mansion, gets chauffeured around in a limo, and finds ways to get thrown out of a series of prep schools. After he gets expelled from the last one for counterfeiting driver’s licenses, his tolerant, doting mother (Hope Davis) is unable to bribe his way back in, and he’s reduced to enrolling at the local public school.
His preppy blazer quickly gets him into trouble there. A bully named Murphy (Tyler Hilton) regularly beats him up, stuffs his head into a toilet, and even gets another kid to document the violence on video. The only solution Charlie’s mom can think of is to send him to his uncle, a psychiatrist who immediately surmises that he has ADD and prescribes Ritalin.
Charlie then solves his bully problem by inviting Murphy to become his business partner in selling Ritalin to their classmates. Eventually the operation expands: from his uncle Charlie acquires a veritable pharmacy of drugs that Murphy turns around and sells, and they start hawking old videos of Murphy beating other kids up, with a cut of the proceeds going to the victims. Meanwhile, Charlie sets up a combination confessional and psychiatry practice in a stall in the boys’ bathroom, quizzing classmates (male and female) in adjacent stalls and coming up with pharmaceutical solutions to their ailments. He thereby becomes the most popular boy in the school, acquiring the status of a rock star — or evangelist — and fulfilling his most treasured fantasy of empowerment.
A silly premise? You bet. But arguably not as silly as some of the social attitudes it ridicules, such as the widespread assumptions that class barriers are easy to overcome (see The Bucket List), that schools must have surveillance cameras (another big issue here), and that students should be medicated for maladies and forms of depression that didn’t exist for previous generations. (As psychiatrist and author Peter D. Kramer writes in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, “Psychiatric diagnosis [has] been subject to a sort of ‘diagnostic bracket creep’ — the expansion of categories to match the scope of relevant medications.”)
And what about the tolerance for booze in the U.S. compared with the hysterical demonizing of marijuana? One of the funniest jokes in Charlie Bartlett is in a simple act of casting: the high school principal, the single father of Charlie’s girlfriend (Kat Dennings), is an alcoholic played by former drug abuser Robert Downey Jr. He’s granted a comic vulnerability that makes him more than a one-dimensional dyed-in-the-wool villain — one of the few instances where the characterization in Charlie Bartlett is more nuanced than in Pump Up the Volume. At one point he installs surveillance cameras in the student lounge, sparking violent protests. Yet during one of his binges, he uses a remote control to operate a motorized toy boat in his swimming pool while firing idly at it with a handgun. The sheer pathos of his despair is touching, clarifying to what extent he’s just an older version of Charlie Bartlett. By contrast, the principal in Pump Up the Volume — played by jazz singer Annie Ross, another bit of joke casting — is never granted any affection.
Less successfully handled is a gratuitous subplot about Charlie’s missing father. The fact that this unseen character is in prison and that Charlie hasn’t forgiven him is never developed, and the belated revelation of his crime — which only begs the question of what the source of the Bartlett fortune is — seems even more pointless.
Antiauthoritarian gestures are of course standard fare in teen movies. The underlying premise of the rock movies of the 50s was that music was the main form of rebellion available. As its title suggests, Pump Up the Volume doesn’t so much negate that idea as build on it through the free-form talk-radio tirades of an anonymous pirate broadcaster (Christian Slater) who intersperses his rants with favorite cuts. But in Charlie Bartlett, even though some live music figures in a celebratory party thrown by Charlie, the theme of music as rebellion is barely present. (At one point, however, high on Ritalin, he parodies an older brand of pop music by pounding away on a piano and singing.) The antiauthoritarian gestures in this movie still have something to do with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. But they’re also caught up in the parents’ sickness — at times they feel closer to desperate sarcasm or capitalist revenge than to the earlier attempts at liberation.
At a historic summit in Spain against global terrorism, the U.S. president (William Hurt) is shot, a bomb explodes, and two federal agents (Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox) rush to find the culprits. This gripping if ridiculous thriller repeatedly backtracks to present the same events from different viewpoints, though ironically it has no viewpoint of its own, just a desire to pile up plot twists and extend a thrilling car chase ad infinitum. Milking an international crisis for thrills may seem tasteless, but of course the news media do it all the time, which is highlighted by the movie’s shameless lack of interest in such drab matters as political motivation. If you’re up for good nihilist entertainment, look no further. With Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, and Edgar Ramirez. PG-13, 90 min. (JR)