Imperium


A bunch of knuckleheads...I mean, skinheads.

A bunch of knuckleheads…I mean, skinheads.

(2016) Drama (Grindstone/Lionsgate) Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nelson Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Burn Gorman, Adam Meier, Roger Yawson, Linc Hand, Vanessa Ore, Jasson Finney, David Aranovich, Paul Chapman, David Meadows, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Asif Khan, Cora Metzfield. Directed by Daniel Ragussis

 

The underbelly of a nation – any nation – is often ugly. The white supremacist movement is part of our own underbelly, like it or not. It is a movement based on fear; fear of anything different, but also of inspiring fear in others. I can’t think of any ethnic American who would be happy to be cornered by a pack of white supremacists. This is a sub-strata of Americans in which violence is always lurking close to the surface.

When some chemicals that could be used in the making of a dirty bomb go missing, the initial thought at the FBI is that it is the usual suspects – Islamic extremists – who are behind it. However, gum-chewing agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) has an idea it might be something more homegrown – white supremacists – who might be behind the theft. She doesn’t really have the support of her superiors but she is just convincing enough to have an undercover operation authorized. To pull it off, she doesn’t get the usual veteran field agent but instead an analyst named Nate Foster (Radcliffe) who has no undercover experience whatsoever.

Going undercover with a backstory of being a Black Ops Marine who is tired of seeing his country overrun by the same sorts he was fighting in the Middle East, Foster infiltrates the various strata of white supremacist culture starting with the violent and impulsive skinheads (whom he cleverly stops from assaulting an interracial couple) to the more organized militia types who have camps set up in rural locations and have some big plans. But it is the big fish that Foster is after. He starts with radio host and author Dallas Wolf (Letts) who is on a book tour to promote his hate-filled opus Genocide: The Death of White America. In turn this leads to Gerry Conway (Trammell), a soft-spoken family man who hosts barbecues, is a vegetarian, adores classical music and almost reasonably espouses a race war that would lead to the whites taking back America. His is the most chilling villain of all; the true believer. But do the white supremacists have the chemical? And if so, what do they intend to do with it?

The film takes a little while to get going but once it does, it is a pretty strong crime drama. While the premise reeks of TV cop drama, the fact that it is based on true events lends authenticity generally absent on the small screen.

The elephant in the room needs to be tackled first of all. Radcliffe is not the most imposing physical specimen in the world and he’s cast as a kind of mousy FBI analyst, which works but when he gets a backstory of being a badass ex-Marine it kinda doesn’t. Some have snarked about Radcliffe’s Harry Potter past and how it could be construed that enterprising true life white supremacist groups could cut and paste a video in which kids could be indoctrinated into thinking that Radcliffe himself believes this garbage which is absolute malarkey. Just because, say, Pierce Brosnan has played some characters with repugnant personal beliefs does it mean that anyone believes that James Bond is repugnant even if you edit all of the footage together.

Still, as the film went on, I found myself drawn into Radcliffe’s performance and after seeing him this year as a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man and in the last few years in a variety of roles I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is he a versatile actor but also a fearless one. Nate gets out of situations not so much by physical means but more by his wits; which makes the character much more believable. While the story has essentially been done before, the way it is presented here is pretty much unique.

There are a lot of racial epithets strewn about here and that might make some viewers uncomfortable although after awhile you do become kind of numb to it. The thing about hate speech is that if you hear it long enough you begin to realize how pointless it really is and you just kind of tune it out. I wonder what that says about us as a society?

The FBI is portrayed as a bureaucratic mess here with low level management attempting to carve out their own little niche and taking out any who aren’t with their own program, even if it means ignoring an entire line of investigation. I suppose that there is some truth to that in some cases but it is hard to believe that a law enforcement agency that has really kept domestic terrorism to a bare minimum is quite that dysfunctional. Of course, that’s more my observation and is not based on anything empirical; I’m not familiar with the inner workings of the FBI and the writers had access to at least one person who was.

In any case, this is a disturbing, powerful movie that reminds us that some of the most dangerous terrorists in the country aren’t wearing burkas or quote the Quran. Those who are primed to think that all of our troubles come from without (and I’m looking at you Trump supporter) may be well-advised to look again. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone, but it is a disquieting look at a strata of our society that is out there – and has plans.

REASONS TO GO: The last half of the movie is powerful and suspenseful. The soundtrack is terrific. Radcliffe delivers an unexpected performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes awhile to get going. The bureaucracy of the FBI portrayed here may be frustrating for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of swearing going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film is inspired by the real-life story of FBI agent Michael German who contributed to the writing of the script.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betrayed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster