General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
At this remove, few people remember how big Idi Amin Dada was in the 1970s. He wasn’t just an African dictator, he was the African dictator. Richard Pryor spoofed him on TV (“My name is Idi Amin Dada. That’s 3 A’s, 2 D’s, and one gun.”) He made the cover of Time magazine, back when it actually mattered. Never mind that Uganda is only the ninth most populous nation in Africa, or that Amin was arguably less murderous than (to name but a handful of African dictators) Haile Mengistu of Ethiopia, Francisco Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, and possibly half a dozen others. Amin was well known in the 1970s, while the others remained obscure to all but foreign policy wonks.
I suspect that Barbet Schroeder’s documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, had a lot to do with that. It’s a fascinating film about a man who was a ruthless dictator, giving access to a film crew in expectation that it would make a fine piece of propaganda, unaware of how nakedly it would reveal the vast gulf between his own self-image and reality. Amin was a man of limited intelligence and limitless ego, who would eventually adopt “”His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” as his preferred title.
I knew that Idi Amin was crazy, but until I watched Schroeder’s documentary, I didn’t realize he was nine different types of crazy.
The film follows Amin around to several official and unofficial functions: reviewing troops in parade formation and field maneuvers, giving speeches, watching (and occasionally participating) in musical and dance performances, conducting a waterway nature tour, and conducting a cabinet meeting. All more-or-less normal for a modern head of state, except all these scenes play out differently than they would in a First World country. Amin watches paratroopers descend playground slides. He leads a mock assault on the Golan Heights with a force so small and ill-equipped it would have trouble capturing a 7-11. His cabinet meeting is filled with meaningless platitudes (“You should not be weak, like a woman”), and a voiceover tells us that the Minister of State Amin criticized ended up dead in the Nile two weeks later. He sends inexplicable letters to other heads of state (“If you were a woman, I would marry you,” he says to the President of Tanzania). He says he has prophetic dreams, including one telling him the time and place of his own death. He tells us he’s obtained a secret Israeli policy manual: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
And yet, despite all that, and despite knowing what a monster he was, the film also displays a playful, charismatic side to Amin. Like Dwight said while we were viewing it, “he’s like a big kid with the world’s biggest toybox.” He loved firing guns and riding boats and having jets fly overhead. He was a competent accordionist and an enthusiastic dancer.
It’s amazing that Amin let Schroeder film this. There was an hour version of this broadcast on Ugandan TV, and a 90 minute version released in the west. When Amin’s agents transcribed the longer film, the dictator only asked for about two and a half minutes of cuts. When Schroeder refused, Amin rounded up some 500 French citizens in Uganda, put them in a hotel surrounded by his troops, and gave them telephones and Schroeder’s phone number. The director caved to this censorship by hostage, but restored the footage once Amin was deposed.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written By Derek Connolly
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere
This was a pleasant surprise when I watched it at a “Pre-Hugo Nomination” viewing party. It’s fun, well-executed, light entertainment that just happens to be about (theoretically) time travel.
The setup: Depressed wallflower Darius (Aubrey Plaza, the girl who had the black bars appear over her mouth every time she cussed in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) working a crappy intern position at a Seattle magazine is given a ride-along assignment to investigate a quirky classified ad by a asshole writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) (“Give me the lesbian and the Indian.” (Karan Soni)) Turns out he’s just trying to hookup with an old flame living in the same town as time travel guy.
The ad (based loosely on a real ad done as joke filler), asks for a partner to go back in time with, must bring their own weapons, safety not guaranteed.
They manage to track down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the guy who placed the ad, but he rumbles asshole writer at once at tells him to get the hell off his porch. Darius has better luck, and soon she’s undergoing survival training him while Jeff rekindles his old flame.
If it’s not Romantic Comedy 301, then it’s not any later than Romantic Comedy 315: Two Damaged Weirdos Find Each Other. Despite the fact that the overall arc is somewhat predictable, it’s very well-executed, the dialog is clever and there are some surprises along the way. Like a hilarious, incompetently executed heist of a government research facility, where Kenneth walks past an office birthday party in his black intrusion gear. And the revelation that government agents are, in fact, tailing him. Plus the chemistry between Darius and Kenneth is completely believable. And by the end of the film, Jeff is even a little bit less of an asshole.
Safety Not Guaranteed is less about time travel per say, and more about time in general, and the vital, fleeting nature of human relationships. This came and went pretty quickly last year. While it won’t make you forget Donnie Darko or Primer, as a light romantic comedy with (possibly) time travel elements, it’s very well done, and worked a lot better than I expected. It will probably find a place on my Hugo ballot, and probably deserves a place in (at the very least) the top third of your Netflix queue.
Oh, and this song appears in the film. It’s pretty good.
The Raid: Redemption
Director: Gareth Evans
Writer: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy
This movie came up on the list of movie possibilities over at a friend’s house, when somebody mentioned that it was supposed to feature “non-stop action.”
The Raid: Redemption is sort of like John Woo’s Hard Boiled without all the subtlety and restraint. It’s hyper-violent, hyper-kinetic, utterly gripping, and a bit more realistic than usual for the genre. It’s so well-executed that it jumps right to the top of the Asian Action Cinema heap, which is no mean feat.
An Indonesian SWAT team of 20 or so is in sent in to clear out a drug lord’s shithole high-rise tenement in Jakarta and take him into custody. It soon becomes apparent that they’ve bitten off far more than they can chew when an entire building full of his gang (plus affiliated scumbags) come after them, with the drug lord watching all on his security camera array. About half the team dies in the first fullisade, and the rest are soon running for their lives through corridors, rooms, and even floors (tactical ax for the win!). It’s not quite non-stop carnage from that point on, but it’s pretty close. The survivors can’t escape because gangs in the surrounding tenements have whacked their drivers and cut off their escape routes. Worse, the police department doesn’t know they’re there because their lieutenant has gone rogue for reasons of his own.
The template movies here are not only Hard Boiled, but also Black Hawk Down, The Warriors and Elite Squad. The mood of brutal violence is set early on when the drug lord executes three bound, kneeling men with gunshots to the back of the head, clicks on an empty chamber on the fourth, leaves the revolver on his victim’s shoulder (“Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.”), then extracts a hammer from a desk drawer and dispatches him with that. (I expect to see a similar scene in a Tarantino film in about, oh, five years or so.) If the violence in Django Unchained made you flinch, you might develop a nervous tick watching this. To use the Joe Bob Briggs nomenclature, there’s gun-fu, machete-fu, knife-fu, kung-fu (or, more specifically, the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat), ax-fu, hammer-fu, exploding-propane-canister-in-a-refrigerator-fu, filing-cabinet-fu, and probably a few fus I’ve forgotten. The fight choreography is superbly executed and extremely realistic. When our hero slams a scumbag’s head into three different parts of the same wall on the way down, you flinch every time.
Eventually you start to see some of the genre’s cliches rear their head (like “the traditional Asian one-at-a-time martial arts attacking style” and the old “I’m going to put the gun down so I can kill you with my bare hands” bit), but you’re pretty far in before that happens. And you wonder why no one among the survivors has a cell-phone.
But those are quibbles. It may not be as good a film overall as Hard Boiled simply because the characters aren’t as memorable, but the action scenes are actually better choreographed and more gripping. If that appeals to you, it should jump to the top of your To Watch list.
The Love God?
Director Nat Hiken
Writer Nat Hiken
Starring Don Knotts, Anne Francis, Edmond O’Brien, James Gregory, Herb Voland, Maureen Arthur, Maggie Mancuso and B.S. Pully
The concept of The Love God? is as amusing as it is absurd: Don Knotts not only as an unwilling Hugh Heffner, but also as an unaware object of unbridled feminine lust. (If Don Knotts as sex symbol seems beyond the realm of possibility, consider that in 1969, his separated at birth twin was precisely that.) Knotts plays his usual nervous-nebbish-with-a-heart-of-gold character, and the movie plays out very similar to his more famous works, save for the suggestive nature of the material. And it is only suggestive; it’s about the cleanest film you could ever make about a dirty magazine.
Part of the charm of the film is how it’s both strangely out of time and exactly of it’s time. You couldn’t have made a family movie about a dirty magazine too much earlier than 1969 because it would have been too risque to get greenlight by Hollywood. And you couldn’t have gotten it made too much latter, because the Sexual Revolution quickly become so sacred that no one in Hollywood would have been willing to make such ruthless fun of it, or have an ending that rejected it for the wholesome joys of marriage. One of the films funniest running gags are the “hip” fashion atrocities they foist onto our blithe protagonist, which obviously couldn’t have come from any era but the late 1960s. By contrast, the “swinging” signature song “Mr. Peacock” would have been considered too old-fashioned for the 1950s, much less the era of Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. Also, the characters are mostly stock types that could have appeared in most of Knotts’ other films. For a film that came out the same year as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it has all the edge of a bowling ball.
The movie starts in court (with a technically interesting multi-camera, multiple-window view of the scene along with the credits, and possibly the first use of it on film), with an oddly sentimental pornographer Osborn Tremaine (his wife is the proud covergirl of all his issues) getting a slap on the wrist from the judge on obscenity charges, only to have his precious 4th-class mailing yanked moments later. Shortly thereafter he’s driving through the sticks when he discovers that Abner Peacock’s (Knott) namesake bird-lover magazine The Peacock is on the verge of liquidation. Tremaine quickly rescues the magazine (and its fourth-class mailing permit) and sends Abner off on wild bird chase to South America. When he gets back, it’s only to discover that Tremaine has remade the The Peacock over into a porno mag, and Abner (still listed as the publisher) is under indictment as public enemy number one.
Abandoned by all but his innocent sweetheart Rose Ellen (Maggie Mancuso, playing wholesome, loyal, and very dim), Abner is about to put his head in a noose (literally; a pretty dark touch for a Knotts film) when two ACLU types show up at his door promising to pay for his defense and hire the best attorney money can buy to support free speech.
At the obscenity trial, the Attorney General (Herb Voland) condemns Abner with delicious gusto:
I have another duty, a higher duty to perform. And that is to protect you, your children, the very morality of our nation, from the smut and moral corruption spewed forth like garbage from the lecherous, vile, lewd and licentious mind of this filthy, little degenerate! Look at his face. It is the face of a smut monger. Look at his body: thin, wasted away by the dissipation and debauchery of a life of unspeakable orgies and depravity!…He says he’s innocent. And he does look innocent…until you look into his eyes. They’re the eyes of a man obsessed by sex, eyes that mock our sacred institutions; “bedroom eyes,” they called them in a bygone day. They’re the eyes of a man whose lust knows no bounds, who lives but for corrupting others to a life of carnal pleasures and lewd designs. A man whose erotic desires and libertine practices are used to titillate the unsuspecting, who regards women as his playthings and would stoop to any depths to satisfy his pornographic tastes. The Marquis de Sade would have regarded Abner Peacock as a peer in his search for lechery. We can have a clean America, but only when we remove this sex-ridden smut peddler from the society he is bent upon destroying.
Then his own attorney, played by James Gregory (Angela Lansbury’s husband/patsy in The Manchurian Candidate and Barney Miller‘s inspector Lugar, along with a hundred other supporting roles) gets up and, ahem, defends him:
Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen, I have sat here and heard my client, Abner Peacock, called “a filthy, obscene degenerate; a sex-ridden, lascivious defiler of virtue whose lust knows no bounds, whose publications have plumbed the depths of degradation, and are a reflection of his own sex-obsessed mind.” We’re not going to argue about that. We can see that Abner Peacock is everything the Attorney General has told you he is. It is the unsavory creatures like Abner Peacock who test the strength of our Constitution, which, like our Rock of Gibraltar, has withstood challenge after challenge in protecting our freedom of the press through the years. Now, ladies and gentlemen, are we to stand idly by and allow the first crack to be made in this rock because of this dirty little pornographer? This is a dirty case and a dirty little man. It is with disgust to the point of nausea that I find myself sitting next to this filthy little degenerate! But when I see this filthy degenerate’s Constitutional rights being threatened, then I must take this filthy little degenerate into my arms, clasp him to my breast and fight for this filthy little degenerate’s Constitutional rights and liberty with my very life!
You just don’t see enough people called “filthy little degenerates” these days.
Naturally Abner is acquitted.
With all the publicity, Tremaine knows he has a goldmine on his hands, but can’t raise the money to do the huge print run required to capitalize on it. This necessitates a visit to mobster “Icepick Charlie,” who’s mad for sophistication and self improvement (he has a tutor in to teach a new word every day). Charlie not only wants to underwrite the most sophisticated dirty mag in existence, he thinks he should be the publisher. He hires up-and-coming powerhouse journalist Lisa LaMonica (Anne Francis, still incredibly hot 13 years after Forbidden Planet) to edit The Peacock. She agrees, but on one condition: Abner has to stay on as figurehead, since the trial has made him the lust object of the nation’s id.
Abner just wants to clear his name, and assert that he’s just a clean, wholesome guy, but everyone from his lawyers to the magazine backers insist he must stay on for the sake free speech, and set him up in a penthouse (outfitted in the finest Late Bordello Red Velvet fashion) with french maids and his own “Peacock Pets.” Despite his wholesome nature, Abner (like all Knotts characters) isn’t exactly the the strongest-willed of men, and soon finds that a guy could really get used to the Hef lifestyle…
One of the high points for modern viewers of the film is the stunning array of “hip” outfits Peacock sports. Like this:
Or even this:
And this is so far over the top, it’s almost awesome:
The running joke, of course, is that Abner, far from being a filthy degenerate, is still pure as the driven snow, and spends his spare time teaching his Pets bird calls. Despite the supposedly risque nature of the material, The Love God? plays out like Knotts other star vehicles from the period: nebbish elevated through fluke to exalted status, fall flat on his face, suffers abject humiliation, is abandoned by his friends, triumphs through combination of honesty, good-natured perseverance and a bit of luck, and gets the girl in the end. It works well not only because Knotts was a master of the type (as his five Emmys for Barney Fife attest), but because no matter how grandiose his pretensions or painful his embarrassment at falling woefully short of them, he never loses the audience’s sympathy. Orwell famously noted that “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats,” and Knotts’ characters not only garner more than their fair share, but also stand in for our own. The gulf between his character’s self-image and reality may be vaster than our own, but we’ve all suffered social faux pauxs. We’re willing to enjoy his abject humiliations because we know, in the end, he’ll overcome them; pathos rather than bathos.
Also, like Knotts’ other starring vehicles of the period, The Love God? is pretty funny. Lisa falls for Abner despite the obvious absurdity (“He’s a big square! (pause) Just like the one my mother married.”), and Icepick Charlie falls for her, setting up one of the stranger love triangles in cinema history (or love quadrilateral, counting Rose Ellen). There are pieces that don’t quite work (the birdcall song refrain bit falls a bit flat), but most do. Like many of Knotts’ other films (or a Shakespeare comedy) it ends with a wedding.
In this clip, British comedian Stephen Fry observes that American comedians like to be the triumphant trickster, while British comedians like to play the mournful failure.
And, as a broad generalization fair enough. But this quick and dirty bifurcation ignores not only the many straight man/fall guy comedic pairings on both sides of the Atlantic (Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Cook and Moore), it ignores Knotts entire career as the quintessential victim.
The movie was written and directed by longtime TV writer Nat Hiken, who died before his debut film was released. That’s a shame, as it’s really well-written, smoothly executed comedy of much the same pace and style of other comedic films of the era (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying comes to mind).
This being the Internet, someone has put up the entire film on YouTube:
You can also get The Love God? as part of the Don Knotts Reluctant Hero 4-pack, which also includes The Ghost & Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut and The Shakiest Gun In The West. That’s a lot of Knotts for your buck…
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson, Ato Essandoh
Django Unchained may not be Quentin Tarantino’s best film, but does seem to be the film that comes closest to fulfilling his vision for what he wanted it to be. He wanted to make a big-budget, hyper-violent, A-list, American spaghetti western antebellum slave revenge thriller. Django Unchained is such a perfect realization of that goal that I doubt anyone will ever attempt to do the exact same thing ever again.
Also, it’s a film that admirably self-selects its audience. If you think you’ll like it, you’ll probably really, really like it. If you think you’ll hate it, you’ll probably really, really hate it. It’s not a film for the faint of heart, or those with a low threshold for movie brutality.
If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know the basic setup: German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him track down three brothers he can identify, then makes him his partner in the bounty hunting business. A bit later, they go to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DeCaprio). Stylish gunplay and general brutality ensues.
Like all Tarantino’s movies, there are postmodern nods and namechecks to previous films, including recycling the theme music from 1966’s Django for the opening titles. Unlike his previous films, Tarantino has done a better job sanding off the rough edges and toning down his showier stylistic flourishes. They’re still here, but seem like a more natural fit for the material, be it a slow motion montage as a procession rides past, or solarized flashbacks to Django’s slave past. Likewise, the digressions seem more organic to the film (a scene of proto-Klansmen bitching about the poor quality of eyeholes in their hoods is funny enough that you’re willing to overlook its shaggy nature).
The script is clever and fairly taut for its 165 minute running time, and it doesn’t have the dead spots of (for example) Inglorious Basterds. There are two or three plot twists, some more improbable than others. Django’s wife is named Broomhilda and speaks German (because her original owner was German), which not only makes Waltz perfect for the role Tarantino obviously wrote for him, but actually provides three or four handy plot points in a nice, tidy package. They have a clever plan to rescue Broomhilda. It comes really, really close to succeeding.
Acting ranges from the solid, to really good, to downright excellent. Bruce Dern and Don Johnson are just fine in supporting roles. Jammie Foxx is fine in what amounts to a Shaft Kicks Dixie’s Ass role, though suffers in comparison to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Waltz is very effective in his hand-crafted role of a learned, articulate man who hates slavery and kills people for money, though it’s less of a revelation than his Oscar-winning turn as Hans Landa. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to play a villain worthy of his simmering rage.
But for me the best performance is the movie is DiCaprio’s Candie, a plantation owner whose southern hospitality doesn’t prevent him letting a runaway slave get ripped apart by dogs, and his fury at finding himself being played is something to behold. The trailer suggested he might be playing it to broad and jokey, but his actual performance is very nuanced. DiCaprio has steadily improved as an actor, and of what I’ve seen him in, this is easily his best work.
Of course, some of the usual suspects have gotten their knickers in a twist over an American spaghetti western depicting the evils of slavery. What do they want, to soft peddle the crimes of slavery instead? And those criticizing the film for being brutal and violent: Have you not seen a Tarantino film before? It’s like someone complaining that the Seventh Season of South Park is full of potentially offensive humor. Really? You don’t say?
As previously noted, those with a low threshold for bloodshed and brutality should stay far, far away. As Dwight noted after we left the theater, “I hope they gave the squib guy a bonus.” But if you like Tarantino, here he’s pretty much at the top of his game.
Directed by Dante Lam and Donnie Yen
Written by Hing-Ka Chan and Wai Lun Ng
Starring Ekin Cheng, Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Edison Chen, Jackie Chan, Mickey Hardt
If you like Hong Kong supernatural martial arts films, you’ll probably enjoy Vampire Effect (AKA Twins Effect, since the two female leads are evidently in the same pop band). Modern-day vampire hunter gets cute new partner who clashes with his cute sister, who just happens to be dating an Emo vampire prince whose essence a vampire king wants to eat to unlock a vampire grimoire. Martial arts ensue.
You know, the usual.
Jackie Chan has an extended supporting role that’s pretty much unnecessary, except you get to see Jackie Chan fight vampires. He’s third-billed and gets about 15 minutes of screen time, so it doesn’t even make Top Ten Most Dishonest Uses of Jackie Chan’s Name on the DVD Cover list. (I’m looking at you, Drunken Fist Boxing.)
This hasn’t gotten great reviews, and it’s not a patch on the best work in the genre by the late, great Ching-Ying Lam. The romance subplot drags a bit. The pace and style of the film does rip off the Blade movies…which in turn were ripping off Hong Kong action films, which ripped off everything they could lay their hands on, so par for the course. But it’s funny, and the action scenes work, which is pretty much all I ask as a threshold for enjoyment for this kind of film.
The “sequel” Twins Effect II is evidently a historical martial arts epic with much of the same cast, but none of the same characters.
Supposedly the American DVD (I saw it on-demand) has some scenes chopped that hinder the continuity. When it comes to Hong Kong action films, continuity does not rank high on my list of requirements. I saw the version with lots of martial arts.