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Made In America
by Becky Tan

Many people around the world learn about the United States and what they believe to be Americans through hundreds of films exported from Hollywood. What film would you like to represent Americans abroad? Gone With the Wind? Fast and Furious? My Dinner with Andre? When Harry Met Sally? Pride and Prejudice? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? The Greatest Show on Earth? Fahrenheit 911? From a collection of films that screened at the Berlinale this year, what will the rest of the world think?

Three films are based on true stories and one on legend: A true crime on trial with a gagster gangster, a prissy homosexual journalist, a beautiful model for porno rags, or a historical legend of Pocahontas – historical fiction, but maybe the dialogue will make you believe it this time.

A look at life in small town America from two very different perspectives: How four gay/straight friends live and love in Bangor, Maine, and good-ole country folks from a fictitious mid-western town who for 30 years believe that the status quo could never change.

Then there is an international thriller which looks at the oil industry from inside the duties of a CIA agent and finds a government assassin, along with a classic western from 1954 featured in a retrospective of films from the 1950s. The following reviews reveal a few of America’s latest exports.


Find Me Guilty ***

(Mary W) Opening 2006

Family business is on trial again in this film that recreates part of the longest criminal case in history. From 1987 to 1988, twenty members of the Lucchese family faced prosecution on 76 charges ranging from criminal conspiracy to drug trafficking. Under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, family member Giacomo “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) is already in jail for thirty years. Prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) offers Jackie Dee a reduction in his sentence if he will testify against his family in the prosecution that names him as a co-defendant. Jackie Dee refuses the offer and decides to defend himself.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, who also co-wrote the screenplay, this film is part mob thriller but mostly casa nostra comedy with Jackie Dee setting the stage by calling himself a gagster, not a gangster. He talks about the “family” by showing off a photograph of himself with many of the defendants back when they were growing up together in the same neighborhood. His wisecracks amuse the jury but wise guy Jackie Dee enrages mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) who thinks Jackie Dee’s jokes are losing the collective case. Twenty stiff-collared lawyers, twenty good-ole-mobster defendants, a surly judge, sexy ex and Vin Diesel in a suit with a hairpiece – sound like a Soprano spin-off? Although twenty-one months of trial are condensed into just two hours of film, Jackie Dee still talks too much but supporting characters like self-impressed Kierney and tough-lover Bella DiNorscio (Annabellea Sciorra) add spice, which is quite nice.


Capote ***

(Mary W) Opening March 2, 2006

If Truman Capote was an arrogant, self-absorbed, heartless bastard who used everyone around him for his own purposes then no wonder Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal. Capote was obsessed with the murder of a family on a remote Kansas farm in 1959. He decided to further investigate the crime which became the basis for his last book In Cold Blood. Hoffman portrays the overtly homosexual Capote by constantly touching his hair and glasses while speaking in a feminine, affected voice. Hoffman recreates Capote’s fascination with murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Capote visits Smith in jail often appearing to be his friend, even at first arranging for top legal assistance. But Capote lies to Smith about his true intentions and as he digs deeper into killings that occurred in a robbery gone wrong, Capote buries himself.


The Notorious Bettie Page *** 1/2

(Becky T) Opening 2006

This excellent documentary by Mary Harron follows the life of Bettie Page, a famous American pin-up model in the 1950s. Born 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee, she grew up with three siblings in a poor family. Although the film infers possible incest, she actually leads a sheltered life and has the naïve look and manner as well as expectations of becoming a secretary and wife like many women of her time. Her marriage dissolves and she goes to New York where a policeman takes pictures of her on the beach. She has a natural talent for modelling and begins to work for Irving Klaw and his sister Paula for their porno-photography magazine Movie Star News. These are the days when shoe and foot fetishists bought their magazines under the counter and pornography was illegal. Bettie models to pay the bills while studying to be an actress. She believes that there is nothing unusual or wrong in dressing up in high black boots and posing with other women carrying whips. Her career ends when the U.S. Senate investigates pornography’s corruption on young people. She was the prototype of the sadomasochistic pin-up and an inspiration for comic illustrators, fashion designers and – according to the press material – an inspiration even for Madonna. Blond, petite actress Gretchen Mol is excellent in the lead role as she changes into sexy, buxom, dark-haired, innocent Bettie. This well-made film draws an interesting comparison between our relatively free press in Europe compared to the U.S. of the 50s. Bettie Page bondage films are now available on video and DVD.


The New World ***

(Karen P) Opening March 2, 2006

Award winning director, Terrence Malick attempts to give us yet another version of the love story of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Like every narrative with an angle, Malick presents a ‘new world’ of thought rather than word. His attempt to create a mood for Lost in Translation worked with a script no one could write home about, literally. However, Malick’s slow moving interpretation of two worlds colliding in the 17th century between the Native Americans and the English settlers is told through incredible cinematography. Since Pocahontas was such a significant part of the peace that developed between the two groups, naturally, Malick goes after her story through imagery, since she is watching and learning a different language and a different culture. The love story of John Smith and Pocahontas exposes an interesting side of innocence to relationship building which is somewhat childlike, full of inquiry and wonderment. Aside from the cinematography, the entry of character John Rolfe (Christian Bale) was my saving grace for this two-and-half-hour wordless flick. Curious to learn more about his character, I did some research and thoroughly enjoyed brushing up on some history. As for Malick’s version, many aspects of his historical narrative were disturbing to me because I had not thought about the accounting in the same manner. And often the sequences were out of order which appeared to be more of a technical issue of the film, but, hey, the producers promised a three hour version to appear on the screen summer 2006. Oh! Won’t that be grand, an even longer version of very little to say.


Vacationland ***

(Becky T)

Director Todd Verow has made an autobiographical feature film about growing up in the projects in Bangor, Maine. “Projects in Maine” sounds like an oxymoron, but Verow tries to prove differently. The teenaged Todd character named Joe (Brad Hallowell) discusses life with his sister. They live with their mother who is a dope addict or alcoholic. A typical family exchange is: Mother says, “I’m going to pass out on the sofa. If I don’t wake up, call the coroner.” Joe replies, “I already programmed it on your speed dial.” Joe and his friend Andrew (Gregory J. Lucas) hang out with two girls, one a cheerleader (“I am head cheerleader and you are the football star and we have certain obligations.”). They work at the supermarket, shoplift, hang out at gay bars, and dream of leaving Bangor. Joe moves in with an older homosexual and cares for him. There is hetero- and homosexual sex, a man is attacked, the sister steals money from the boss and escapes from the city on a plane. The lead actors are beautiful young men but the script wanders and didn’t always hold my attention. Perhaps I was too busy watching the people in the audience and trying to guess why they had purchased tickets to this film.


A Prairie Home Companion **** 1/2

(Karen P) Opening 2006

“It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …” were the opening words of Garrison Keillor, heard every Saturday night broadcasted live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the film, the cast and crew of the WLT radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, prepare for their last live performance. While the studio camera spies on the various variety show performers in their dressing rooms; the film audience is allowed to eavesdrop on them conversing about their lives, telling jokes discussing the latest town gossip. All conversations avoid one topic: the show being shut down after 30 years running because WLT is being sold to a Texas conglomerate run by Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones). The glue that holds the night together lies in the hands of grossly pregnant stagehand, Maya Rudolf.

Garrison Keillor, as himself, appears as one of the gang but in reality he is the silent “strength behind the wheel” that encourages each member of the show to give it his/her all, in spite of their last night acting together. The strained emotional energy connected with this evening is the catalyst to comical and mysterious mishaps. The Johnson Girls (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), Lola (Lindsey Lohan), Cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are a hoot and take their own liberties to add a little spice to their characters. The Dick-Tracy-style of story telling using a clumsy theater security guard, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) and the appearance of a beautiful composed angel (Virginia Madsen) allowed realism to enter the storyline and symbolized a clever take on life.

Director Robert Altman with writer Keillor together produced a film with inspired imagery of a story-telling dream that was materialized. In reality, the dream lasted over a quarter of a century on live radio competing with the rise of television. It was and still is one of the most creative ideas produced in the history of radio. The story is an image of success, an image of an American dream! Even though the official Saturday evening radio broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion has come to an end, the stories of the folks from Lake Wobegon told by Garrison Keillor are still going strong today on over 500 public radio stations across America, because it’s the place, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”


Syriana ***

(Karen P) Opening February 23, 2006

Adapted from the book See No Evil by Robert Baer, director Stephan Gaghan attempts to address the magnitude of the corruption within big-time oil company mergers. All of the key players are challenged by this intricately dangerous game. It is a constant struggle to keep each player from being consumed by the vicious cycle that will either make or break them: personally and politically. When the political accountability breaks down and individuals take matters into their own hands, the personal trusts are endangered. The demise of the personal contacts erode and it is hard to know who is good and who is bad. George Clooney, as CIA veteran Bob Barnes, did an excellent job characterizing a complex but “loyal company man.” Yet, I was always wondering why his company would continually use him as a pawn. Needless to say, the transitions of this film were not clear enough to tie a very complicated narrative together. The intrigue of the topic was worth the 128 minute sit in the theater and trying to keep all the characters straight was a good exercise for my brain. Check it out! I guarantee that you will go out and buy the book.


Johnny Guitar ****

(Becky T)

This classic western from 1954 appeared in the Berlinale in a series of 1950s films under the category “Retrospective.” This was a marvellous opportunity to relive movie going half a century ago when cinema had no competition from TV, computers, videos or DVDs. People went to the movies once a week. How does this film stand up 52 years later? Very well. The Technicolor scenery is old-fashioned, but the film could have been played on a bare stage and still have been breathtaking. This is due to the aura of Joan Crawford who plays Vienna, a single woman who runs a saloon. She believes that her saloon will flourish as soon as the railroad comes to town. She hires Johnny Guitar (Stirling Hayden) to entertain the guests. These two seem to have shared a more intimate past; there is still an erotic spark which Vienna denies. Emma Small leads the townspeople who wish to drive Vienna and her saloon out of town, using as an excuse a man’s death following a stage coach robbery. Johnny helps Vienna escape their wrath. Joan Crawford smoulders throughout with perfect posture and clipped speech. It’s easy to see why she is a gay icon; she is distinctly individual in such a way that drag queens could copy her easily. The men sitting in front of me were enjoying every minute. This is a good film for practicing English as each word is spoken slowly in short sentences. Many lines must be famous today, such as, “Spin the wheel, Jake, I like to hear the wheel spin.” “Say you love me like I love you.” “His name’s Johnny Logan.” “A good smoke and a cup of coffee, that’s all a man needs.”