Movies » Movie Reviews

Audacious done well, audacious done boring


"There are those who ask why this responsibility should be ours. The answer, I think, is simple: There is no one else who can do the job."

Think that's George W. Bush defending the decision to invade Iraq? Think again. Those ultimately foreboding sentiments actually come courtesy of Lyndon Johnson as he justifies American involvement in Vietnam, and it's just some of the alternately head-scratching and mind-blowing footage found in Hearts and Minds, the landmark Oscar-winning documentary enjoying its 30th anniversary re-release after a two-year restoration. 

The access afforded to director Peter Davis is shocking even in this era of CNN, when real-time images of war are disturbingly commonplace. We hear from Vietnamese farmers as they point out where the bombs struck their children, spend time with American GIs as they frolic with Saigon prostitutes, and watch current and former soldiers both wrestle with and rationalize their actions in country.

Famous still photos come to life, such as the Viet Cong executed at point-blank range and the little girl running naked after a napalm attack, and we get to see what happened after the shutter closed as well. Men with names like Westmoreland, Dulles, and Kennedy opine from beyond the grave, while ordinary Americans and Vietnamese --- however ill-informed, however enraged --- are also allowed the opportunity to memorialize their thoughts for the ages.

The war in Vietnam, it goes without saying, is one of the darker marks on the permanent record of this usually great country, and as a result is often discussed in the same hushed tones normally reserved for talking about a crazy aunt, if it's even discussed at all. Hearts and Minds leaves no doubt as to the filmmakers' views on the subject and caused quite a controversy the first time around. For example, at the 1974 Academy Awards producer Bert Schneider (who also produced films like Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Days of Heaven, incidentally) read a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris peace talks as part of his acceptance speech. The act reportedly caused John Wayne to blow a gasket and Frank Sinatra to issue an on-air apology-disclaimer.

Sadly, my generation (Gen X, that is) and younger, which went in droves to see Fahrenheit 911, probably won't take the time to catch this still-relevant film. But they should.

John Waters is one of those filmmakers --- like Woody Allen --- who seems to get cut greater slack thanks to their once-daring oeuvre. There's always a contingent of diehard fans that will inevitably pony up for a John Waters movie, no matter how lame the buzz, thus allowing him to get another film bankrolled and the cycle to continue.

I am not a John Waters fan. I actually saw three of his films this summer with the openest of minds and tried to understand why my intelligent (and attractive!) movie-loving friends dig him so much. Were these flicks clever? Occasionally. Were they audacious? Sometimes. Were they sweet? Usually. Were they boring? God, yes. And John Waters' latest film, A Dirty Shame, is no exception.

Tracey Ullman stars as Sylvia Stickles, a Baltimore convenience store proprietor who is completely uninterested in sex, despite being married to the dreamy Chris Isaak. Sylvia's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), applauds her daughter's frigidity, while Sylvia's daughter (Selma Blair), a surgically enhanced stripper called Ursula Udders, is under house arrest for indecency.

Sylvia receives a concussion during a traffic mishap that turns her into a raging sex addict --- a surprisingly common affliction according to Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), an auto-mechanic-sexual-healer whose disciples have fetishes that run the gamut from sploshing to frottage. There's also an adult baby, a guy who's turned on by dirt, and a family of "bears." (Sylvia is diagnosed as a "cunnilingus bottom," which I didn't realize was a fetish.) And like every other John Waters film, the conflict arrives via a group of prudes ("neuters," as they're called here) who are trying to put the kibosh on the freedoms harmlessly enjoyed by others. Oh, you're pro-tolerance, John Waters? That's so controversial!

Waters has the uncanny, frustrating knack for taking a perfectly capable actor like Tracey Ullman and turning her into the hammiest ham to ever ham it up. Only Johnny Knoxville escapes unscathed here, and that's just because I love him and he's never been that good anyway. Admittedly, there were a few funny parts, such as the Hokey Pokey scene at the nursing home that climaxed with Sylvia lifting a bottle of water without using her hands.

But as one friend observed, the humor throughout could have also been achieved by giving a pack of 12-year-old boys two movie cameras and one joke. I agreed but felt as if those boys had used all three items to beat me over the head for an hour and a half instead of making a movie.

A Dirty Shame (NC-17) and Hearts and Minds (R) are both playing at Little Theatre.