Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Movie Review: Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)


A drama and romance epic, Memoirs Of A Geisha reveals a corner of Japanese culture from the perspective of a young girl sold into a life of service. The film weaves a cultural spell but is overlong and cloaked in haughty self-importance.

The setting is Japan in the period between the two World Wars. Chiyo is a young girl with beautiful eyes, the daughter of a struggling fisherman. At nine years old she is separated from her sister Satsu and sold into the care of Nitta (Kaori Momoi), the "Mother" responsible for training and nurturing future geishas in Kyoto. At Nitta's house Chiyo meets another young trainee Pumpkin, as well as leading geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is arrogant and unfriendly.

One day a despondent Chiyo has a chance encounter with a distinguished businessman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and sets her sights on becoming the best possible geisha to win his heart. Soon the kindly geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) selects Chiyo as a mentee and accelerates her training. The adult Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) adopts the name Sayuri and indeed becomes a coveted geisha, creating a vicious rivalry with the resentful Hatsumomo.

Sayuri never gives up hope of reuniting with the Chairman, but to increase Sayuri's desirability and market value, Mameha introduces her to other men, including the engineer Nobu (Kōji Yakusho), Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim) and The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The intervention of World War Two soon changes everything.

The settings, production design, costumes, cinematography and make-up are all lavish, and Ziyi Zhang in the central role delivers understated dedication. But Memoirs Of A Geisha is ultimately an effusive production teetering on the tip of a small story. The novel by Arthur Gordon is brought to the screen by director Rob Marshall, and the film is too grandiose for its own good. The substance of the twee story is overloaded with petty inter-geisha jealousies and infantile infatuation, and is simply incapable of sustaining or justifying a 145 minute epic.

After a slow start and excruciatingly repetitive scenes of young Chiyo yearning to be reunited with her sister, the second act starts to flow better. The introduction of Michelle Yeoh's steady presence as mentor Mameha boosts the energy level, and Chiyo's transformation into Sayuri offers an intriguing peek into the geisha culture.

But then the bland interpersonal conflicts with Hatsumomo kick in, and despite a powerful Gong Li antagonist presence the film quickly sinks into the amateur theatrics of geishas undermining each other. These are followed by a sordid loss-of-virginity auction, the film's emphasis on portraying geishas as elegant companions adept at music, culture and reading undermined by a straightforward sex-for-sale subplot.

Finally an interminable post-war fourth act combines stereotypical boorish Americans abroad with a late-in-the-day romantic triangle plus petty score settling, and by this stage the sun of enthusiasm starts to set even in the east. Memoirs Of A Geisha wears a pretty kimono, but takes an inordinate amount of time wrapping it up.






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Movie Review: The Square (2013)


A street-level documentary about the Arab Spring in Egypt, The Square explores the combustible mixture of enthusiasm, chaos and crackdown as the people take to the streets en masse demanding regime change.

Starting in January 2011, crowds start to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding the fall of the military regime of President Hosni Mubarak. After 30 years of emergency rule, the yearning for democracy and better social conditions reaches a boiling point. The demonstrators are peaceful, and include a mixture of liberals, academics, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Christians from all walks of life, genders and social classes.

Ahmed is an idealistic non-religious young man, Khalid Abdalla is a well-known actor (best known for starring in The Kite Runner), Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramy is a musician and Aida is a liberal. They descend onto the square along with thousands of others, and under the unyielding pressure of the masses Mubarak resigns, but only to be replaced by other generals. Then the Brotherhood strikes a deal with the military for early elections, causing rifts within the ranks of the demonstrators, while bursts of brutal violence and attacks by police and military forces cause casualties.

A prime example of be careful what you wish for, The Square chronicles societal upheaval as a country politically convulses. Director Jehane Noujaim captures the Egyptian edition of the popular uprisings that swept through the Arab world in the early 2010s. She finds a populace fully convinced the current regime has to be upended, but with no readiness or plan for what comes next.

And so after Mubarak's resignation a power vacuum takes hold, the status quo of military governance deemed unacceptable and the Muslim Brotherhood, the only semi-organized political entity in the country, a seemingly worse second choice for the liberals, Christians and educated elites of the country. Not surprisingly, the violence gets worse as unity fragments.

As a documentary The Square focuses on the in-the-crowd experience rather than any overall context. With the articulate and thoughtful Ahmed as primary guide, the film spends most of its time with the teeming masses in the square. Music, food, tents, discussions, slogans and bursts of national pride create an improvised social structure to galvanize the will of the people. The perspective sometimes shifts to the apartments of the main characters, with Khalid Abdalla's video conversations with his US-based father providing an interesting alternative dynamic.

And when things turn ugly, the film does not look away. Violence arrives in the form of tear gas, live bullets and military vehicles ramming into the crowds, and the consequences are agonzing, often fueling anger and a redoubling of determination.

With morale flowing and ebbing with fervour and disillusionment, several waves of protestors take over Tahrir Square over the course of two years. By 2013, alternatives have been tested, energy exhausted, and the square completes the circle.






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Sunday, 29 March 2020

Movie Review: It Could Happen To You (1994)


A romantic comedy loosely inspired by true events, It Could Happen To You is amiable enough and benefits from grounded Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda performances.

In New York City, Charlie Lang (Cage) is a kind-hearted police officer, happy to remain a beat cop working the streets with his partner Bo (Wendell Pierce). Charlie is married to the materialistic Muriel (Rosie Perez) who resents Charlie's lack of ambition and their modest Queens apartment.

Yvonne Biasi (Fonda) is a compassionate coffee shop waitress, and she has to declare bankruptcy when her no-good husband Eddie (Stanley Tucci) racks up massive credit card debt. Yvonne and Eddie are separated, but she cannot afford to go through a divorce.

After a quick coffee stop Charlie finds himself short of cash for a tip and promises Yvonne half his lottery ticket. The draw is that night, and the ticket wins $4 million. Although Muriel is furious, Charlie insists on honouring his promise and sharing half with Yvonne. All their lives change forever, and as Muriel starts indulging her every whim, Charlie finds himself increasingly attracted to Yvonne, although the reemergence of Eddie adds further complications.

It Could Happen To You adheres strictly to genre conventions, and adds a layer of genuine sweetness. Charlie and Yvonne are an impeccable fit, both saddled with insufferable spouses, and director Andrew Bergman never introduces even an iota of doubt that the cop and waitress will end up together. With down-to-earth Queens locations, a relaxed tone and an ideal run time of 101 minutes, the film is easy to enjoy.

The couple-to-be are almost too perfect: he helps New Yorkers cross the street and plays ball with the neighbourhood kids every night. She looks after all her regular customers with an outstanding level of bona fide affection. Which raises the question as to how they ended up with their polar-opposite spouses. Muriel is greed personified, hyper-agitated by her man's disinterest in financial wealth. Eddie is nothing but a slimy leach.

Clumsy narration courtesy of an Isaac Hayes character named, of all things, Angel, as well as globs of exposure for the New York Post, are among the other unnecessary distractions.

Where the Jane Anderson script dares to be original is on doubling down on a level of natural goodness and old fashioned charm. Charlie and Yvonne create an irony-free, honesty-rich bubble and gradually work their way towards an authentic love, casting aside the edgy snarkiness often deployed as a humour device. Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda buy into the wholesome personas and add doses of benevolent elegance to the romance.

A lottery win brought two perfectly compatible people together, and the only irony on display is their joint understanding of what true affluence means.






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Saturday, 28 March 2020

Movie Review: Das Boot (1981)


A World War Two submarine warfare epic, Das Boot (The Boat) is a grim, claustrophobic and harrowing depiction of survival against aching boredom punctuated by moments of euphoria and terror.

It's 1941, and Germany's U-Boat fleet is starting to suffer significant losses in the Atlantic. Regardless, more boats are pushed into service with inexperienced crews. Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is a reporter assigned to accompany U-96 on her next patrol. The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) are veterans, but many of the crew members are young men.

After setting sail from La Rochelle in occupied France, days of crushing tedium are endured at sea. The monotony is broken by a minor skirmish with an Allied destroyer, followed by a chance encounter with another U-Boat in rough seas. Eventually U-96 locates a large Allied convoy of merchant ships and engages in warfare. But enemy vessels launch devastating counter strikes, resulting in U-96 enduring a severe beating. The Captain has to navigate back to safety, but further nasty surprises await.

An uncompromising representation of life in a steel tube crush-filled with mariners fulfilling their national duty and based on a German reporter's actual account, Das Boot aims for and achieves an overbearing, physically uncomfortable impact. Deploying frequent long takes, writer and director Wolfgang Petersen elbows his cameras on board the submarine to capture the men in their squished status at close quarters.

Within the harsh confines, the passage of time is a character unto itself. The theatrical cut of Das Boot, at 149 minutes, is already an epic representation of the boredom and mental atrophy that seeps into the sub with days and nights of nothing but choppy seas. Other versions run to miniseries length at close to 300 minutes.

But then unexpected encounters crack the monotony, and a rush of adrenaline sweeps through the vessel. The euphoria of vanquishing an enemy is matched by the absolute dread caused by the grim reaper banging on the walls with depth chargers. The oscillating emotions are exhausting, and it is the Captain's duty to manage his men's mental state, keeping them focused on the most immediate task while ensuring the sub remains functional to survive another day.

Although the film is about the collective more than the individual, Petersen does sufficiently define three characters. The Captain is approaching the resigned state, now far removed from buying into state propaganda and witnessing a future defeat in the raw age of recruits assigned to the U-boats. But he is still in complete command of his commission, capable of making every required decision under extreme duress.

The Chief Mechanic Johann is also a veteran but closer to the edge, and he may have completed more missions than he can mentally handle. His journey features the wildest oscillations, his character tested like never before. And finally the reporter Werner is the outsider's eye, standing apart from the men and witnessing war from within a submarine for the first time. Physically and mentally unprepared, his lack of foreknowledge is sometimes advantageous in shielding him from horrors to come.

Das Boot is at its most intense when U-96 is under unyielding attack from an unseen enemy. Petersen draws out these scenes to the point of unrelenting psychological collapse, finding the corners of men's souls where there is nothing left to do but wait for death. With a submarine under attack offering the expedient opportunity of a mass coffin, young men will either grow old in a hurry or pass into legend.






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Movie Review: 12 Strong (2018)


An action war movie based on real events, 12 Strong benefits from stirring action scenes and a strong connection to remarkable facts. But the film is overlong and often wades into traditional jingoism.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) reverses his decision to seek a desk job and accepts an assignment to lead his unit of 12 men into Afghanistan. Nelson has no combat experience but is respected by his men, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña).

The unit is dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan with orders to connect with the forces of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban) and storm the strategically vital city of Mazar-i Sharif. Nelson finds it difficult to earn Dostum's respect, and his men have to learn horsemen skills to navigate the mountainous terrain. And although Nelson can call upon airstrikes, the Taliban are dug-in with heavy armaments and are much more familiar with the local terrain.

The first American combat mission after the 9/11 attacks was a secret incursion eventually chronicled in the 2009 book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. The script by Ted Tally and Peter Craig is brought to the screen by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, and the film combines plenty of action scenes with some character backfill and culture clash sequences. Fuglsig is more comfortable with combat, and when the bullets start flying 12 Strong settles into a whizzy groove, over the top for sure but edited into welcome coherence.

The attempts to round some of the key members of Nelson's crew into relatable people are laudable but ultimately futile. This is a war film where tough guys just grimace and carry on, and none of the jokeyness, serious conversations and difficult-talks-with-the-wives add much nuance.

The thrust to humanize men of war includes a concerted effort on the relationship between Nelson and Dostum, and here Fuglsig finds more success if well within genre conventions. East meets west, a veteran fighter assesses an untested possible ally, and fear of the unknown cuts both ways. Both men will have to come through for each other, and while the tension between them adds to the drama, the outcome is never in doubt.

The trio of Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña provide sufficient star presence to propel the action without overpowering the narrative. One Taliban commander is afforded the dubious honour of representing the enemy, dressed all in black all the time for emphasis, and here the script falls flat by providing no context whatsoever to the other side of the conflict.

But the greatest threat to the film's success emerges in the form of creeping length, almost every scene unnecessarily prolonged. Nelson promised to achieve his objectives in a remarkable three weeks; at 130 minutes, the film did not need to feel as long.






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Movie Review: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931)


A torrid drama and romance, Susan Lenox features the only teaming of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable in a sometimes overheated love story mixed with the struggles of a woman defining her own way in life.

Helga is born to an unmarried mother who dies during childbirth, and raised by cruel uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). As soon as the adult Helga (Garbo) reaches marrying age, Karl arranges for her to wed the boorish Jeb (Alan Hale). Helga wants no part of a loveless marriage and escapes into a stormy night, ending up at the cabin of engineer Rodney Spencer (Gable).

They fall in love, but when Rodney has to travel to Detroit, Helga has to again escape the clutches of Karl and Jeb. She joins a traveling carnival and assumes the identity of Susan Lenox, cozying up to the show's leader Wayne Burlingham (John Miljan) for safety. When Rodney comes looking for her he is disgusted by her indiscretion, rupturing their relationship and leading Susan towards a new bohemian lifestyle.

Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, Susan Lenox is an adaptation of the at-the-time scandalous (and posthumously published) 1917 novel by David Graham Phillips. Director Robert Z. Leonard works from a tight screenplay (co-written by four people) to slim down the 900 page book into a compact story of one woman taking on the world and determined to deal with men on her own terms. And Leonard sneaks in some clever introductory scenes using nothing more than shadows on the wall to summarize Helga's difficult upbringing.

Despite an obsession with the objective of snaring a man for legitimate marriage, the story's early feminist streak is impressive. Helga refuses to marry the man assigned to her, strikes out on her own during a stormy night, wins Rodney's heart, and when fate tears them apart, does what she needs to do to survive and then thrive. As the years roll on she gains a world weariness but never loses sight of her sense of self-worth, and keeps her eyes on the one prize that matters.

Many of the dialogue scenes exhibit signs of awkward clunkiness, and the heat between Garbo and Gable reaches only lukewarm temperatures, her aura of sophistication floating well above his well-intentioned gruffness. Despite the film's brevity the scenes between them are prolonged and stray into repetitiveness, until a most abrupt ending ties everything up with a sharp emotional U-turn.

Better are some of the set designs, including the final location of "Puerto Sacate". The dancehall bustles with all manner of peripheral, shady and hustling characters, drowning miseries or seeking fortunes at a peripheral and seedy port hub. Susan Lenox absolutely knows what she does not want out of life, but will need to transition through unlikely outposts to secure what she craves.






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Thursday, 26 March 2020

Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)


An adult fairytale and horror drama, Pan's Labyrinth creates a mystical world adjacent to the darkness of fascism, and explores humanity's options in the face of monsters.

It's 1944 in Spain, and Franco's Nationalists are victorious. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) welcomes his pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to his military camp at the edge of a forest where the remnants of anti-Franco Republican forces are still active. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is Carmen's daughter from a previous marriage, and she is contacted by magical creatures and led into a labyrinth where she meets Faun (Doug Jones), a half-man, half goat. He provides Ofelia with a series of tests to confront intimidating monsters, to confirm if she is a long-awaited immortal underworld princess.

Meanwhile the vicious Vidal wants to flush out and kill the hold-out revolutionaries, not knowing that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and camp doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) are sympathetic to the Republicans. Carmen's pregnancy is complicated, but Vidal yearns for a son to pass on the warrior legacy he inherited from his father. With Ofelia growing more courageous and Mercedes actively helping the rebels, an existential confrontation looms.

From the imagination of director and writer Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth juxtaposes real and fantasy worlds, exposing the monsters in both. Adopting the perspective of young Ofelia, the film is a dazzling visual and emotional experience and a breathtaking battle between forces with no obvious good cause, as evil in human form and mythical creatures of the forest offer contrasting challenges and no easy answers.

The film is uncompromising in its commitment to exposing brutality. Vidal is a heartless killer pursuing a lineage legend of his own making. Despite all the power he wields, Ofelia sees right through his bombast and never once attempts to appease him. And when Faun, himself a shifty character, challenges her to confront a hideous giant toad and a pale faceless child killer, she is equally fearless.

But even Ofelia is not perfect, nor is her fate pre-ordained. She succumbs to temptation as del Toro introduces religious overtones, and Ofelia compromises a legacy that only she will ultimately define. As the showdown between Vidal and the rebels intensifies, so does Ofelia's imperative to intervene where it matters most.

Combining layers of make-up, astounding animatronics, and seamless CGI, del Toro brings creatures to life in visually rich scenes filled with wonder, but with sinister danger always lurking. The action moves briskly back and forth between the mystical labyrinth and Vidal's compound, Carmen's burdensome pregnancy counting down to the birth of what could become a future monster under Vidal's tutelage. 

But the newborn will also be Ofelia's half-brother, and as she works her way through to understanding her role, the real and imagined worlds merge to offer the purest of destinies.






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Sunday, 22 March 2020

Movie Review: Ocean's Eight (2018)


A heist thriller, Ocean's Eight features an all-women gang plotting a daring diamond heist at the dressy gala event of the year. The female perspective is empowering, but the plot and characters are middling.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the infamous Danny, is released from prison after serving more than five years for theft and fraud. She sets about assembling a team of women for her next big job. Lou (Cate Blanchett) is Debbie's frequent partner-in-crime, Tammy (Sarah Paulson) is a fence hiding behind a suburban family facade, Nine Ball (Rihanna) is a top-notch hacker, Constance (Awkwafina) is a light-fingered thief, and Amita (Mindy Kaling) is a jewelry maker.

Their target is the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts annual fundraising gala. The event's star attraction is actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), and Debbie recruits fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) to ensure Daphne wears a precious Cartier necklace worth $150m for the evening. The plot to steal the necklace involves spiked soup, security camera blind spots and a special role for Debbie's former partner, smarmy art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage).

While there is merit in re-imagining familiar stories with women in lead roles, the inherent added value can be limited. Ocean's Eight is slick, vivid and sparkly, but other than featuring women as instigators, barely adds anything new to the heist genre. Indeed, the details of the theft are less clever than most. A security camera nudged into a blindspot is not the most thrilling innovation, and becomes essentially ridiculous when the full extent of the plan is later revealed.

The film is sprinkled with wit and some humour, but also lacks character depth and any sense of genuine surprise. Other than Debbie and her spectral bond with Danny (presumed dead, but she has her suspicions) and grizzled friendship with Lou, the other characters threaten to be interesting but are singularly defined by their expertise and receive precious little opportunity to evolve.

As for attempts at unexpected delights, Ocean's Eight introduces a late and unnecessary twist that lands flat and only serves to underline the script's lack of confidence in its own core narrative.

Director and co-writer Gary Ross twiddles the style knobs and recognizes the value of a star-studded cast willing to have some fun, and the film rides their energy. Bullock (determined), Blanchett (circumspect) and an especially ditzy Hathaway generate their own momentum, almost independent of the plot details.

Helena Bonham Carter is unfortunately saddled with a caricature representation of an eccentric fashion designer, while Sarah Paulson's Tammy is bland enough to be instantly forgettable. Rihanna, Awkwafina and Mindy Kaling add diversity but are strictly confined to stereotypes of hacker, thief and jewel maker respectively.

On the positive side, the final act features an intervention by insurance investigator John Frazier (James Corden), an acid-tongued Brit capable of seeing through every conceivable lie. His presence adds a jolt of cheeky electricity as he skewers everyone to determine the fate of the precious necklace. He's a man navigating a maze carefully constructed by a group of sharp women, a welcome reversal of fortune even if the content is familiar for any gender.






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Movie Review: The Cell (2000)


A serial killer drama with a difference, The Cell combines imaginative horror, psychology and science fiction to invade a murderer's psyche.

Psychologist Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is part of team attempting experimental treatments for schizophrenia. Using revolutionary technology developed by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), she enters the mind of young patient Edward to try and lure him out of his coma.

Meanwhile Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a deeply disturbed schizophrenic serial killer. He kidnaps young women and isolates them for days in an automated holding tank, gradually increasing the level of water in a cleansing ritual before the kill. After kidnapping his latest victim Julie Hickson (Tara Subkoff), Carl succumbs to his illness and drops into an irreversible coma. FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) desperate needs to know where Julie is being held, and turns to Catherine with a request to enter Carl's mind to search for clues.

More of a visual feast than a traditional serial killer thriller, The Cell most resembles a visit to an elaborate modern art gallery as director Tarsem Singh brings music video panache to his cinematic debut. Stunning production design, outlandish costumes and make-up, an imagination on steroids and crisp cinematography combine to produce a memorable and knowingly disturbing experience.

The Cell is rich in symbolism, some of it religious, as well as echoes of inspiration from other films, including an opening shot that salutes no less than Lawrence Of Arabia. Water plays a key role in Stargher's agony and derangement, while horses help Catherine navigate foreign minds.

For all the emphasis on ostentatious style, the Mark Protosevich script does also provide an intriguing and relatively original race-against-time narrative. There is a short segment of detective work where Novak and his colleagues frantically work to identify and apprehend Stargher as his kill rate increases, but the real drama resides in the urgent infiltration of a killer's mind.

And it's up to Catherine to navigate a horror show where childhood trauma and a history of brutal abuse co-exist with an adult damaged beyond repair, trapped in his own grandeur but holding one last secret that may yet save a life. The link between deep childhood emotional upheaval and the adult descent into the worst kind of criminality is typical Hollywood fare, and here it amped up with sexual repression, sado-masochism and some disgusting gore.

Just as the film's strength are vivid, so are some suspect moments. The Peter Novak character almost literally wanders in from another movie, and some of the protocols in the mission-critical mind invasion science room, including dog privileges, are loosey-goosey at best. Singh's rush to the next spectacular tableau often overwhelms the pacing, The Cell sometimes resembling a hypnotic experience on warp speed.

Jennifer Lopez maintains a steady presence without achieving any breakthrough moments, while Vince Vaughn struggles to grab a hold of Novak. Vincent D'Onofrio plays to his strength as an unhinged murderer responding to vile impulses.

The Cell tackles horrid subject matter, wrapping grotesque inhumanity in incongruous yet gorgeous packaging.






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Saturday, 21 March 2020

Movie Review: Wag The Dog (1997)


A satire about the power of spin doctoring in politics, Wag The Dog is never less than over the top, but also always funny.

The United States presidential election is eleven days away. The President is running for re-election, but is suddenly facing damaging accusations of sexual misconduct. Renowned spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is called in to manage the crisis. Working with presidential aid Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), he starts to conceive of a war scenario with Albania to distract the press.

Conrad and Winifred recruit Hollywood movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help the cause. He assembles a group of creative artists to create the justification for war, complete with a made-up story of a suitcase nuclear bomb hidden in Canada, fake Albanian village vignettes, manufactured patriotic songs and imaginary victims. When CIA agents disrupt the bogus war narrative, Conrad and Stanley pivot towards a prisoner-of-war sob story featuring Sergeant William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) as a soldier in need of rescue.

In 1998 President Bill Clinton became embroiled in the sex scandal featuring White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and by 1999 the United States was bombing Yugoslavia. By 2016 the concept of fake news and alternative facts had become part of the political lexicon. But before all the jaw-dropping reality came the prescient fiction. Director Barry Levinson brought Wag The Dog to the screen with almost perfect timing, screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet adapting the 1993 book American Hero by Larry Beinhart just in time to grab an I-told-you-so front seat to history.

In turns funny, ludicrous and cutting, the film never pretends to be anything other than a broad satire. The spin doctoring to create and then capitalize upon a non-existent war is beyond any realms of reality, but Levinson runs with it as a plot device to poke fun at the extremes of both Washington DC and Hollywood. Nothing is sacred, least of all the truth, as Conrad, Stanley and their assembled entourage of talented artists allow their imaginations to run wild. They then possess and can deploy unlimited resources to turn their fantasies into a polished visual and aural reality to dominate the attention of a nation.

And even when CIA agents shine a light upon the grand ruse of a non-existent war with Albania, the subterfuge does not stop. Now the story of Sergeant William Schumann, complete with the nickname Old Shoe, is concocted. Just when it seems the film is stretching its own incredulity too thin, Woody Harrelson arrives with a hilariously edgy performance deserving its own narrative. The Schumann character proves too hot handle even for the combined manipulative skills of Conrad and Stanley, and still they will not give up on their lofty plan to achieve mass distraction.

The lead performances are happy to yield to the enormous wackiness. Veterans Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman easily bounce each off other with relaxed portrayals of men good at what they do, comfortable in their own skin, and aware they are still stronger as a team. In an underwritten role, Anne Heche suffers in comparison. Willie Nelson appears as a grizzled songwriter recruited to provide the soundtrack to a crisis, although Levinson is guilty of giving all the incidental mock artefacts too much screen time, as well as a surplus of self-congratulatory moments.

Wag The Dog is happy to propose that everything perceived as fact may be an artistic creation in service of  nefarious objectives. The rich and powerful not only influence history, but also bankroll the peddling of absurd alternative realities to serve selfish agendas. It's an entertaining premise, and at least in spirit, painfully close to the truth.






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