Cinema Dope: Mind Games

The Men Who Stare At Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan, based on a book by Jon Ronson. With George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Stephen Lang, and Robert Patrick. (R)

Look a bit further down this page and you'll spot a reference to a film about our government trying to bump off a certain Cuban dictator, using what sounds suspiciously like a cast-off script from Looney Tunes. What's odd about that plan is that it ever saw the light of day in the first place, being roughly equivalent to something involving a red rock boulder and a giant novelty slingshot. Odder still: it wasn't the strangest thing to come out of Washington.

That at least is according to The Men Who Stare At Goats, whose opening credits tell us that "more of this is true than you would believe." Based on the book by Jon Ronson, the film is a wartime farce loosely based on some of our military's crazier—or more open-minded, depending on your point of view—notions about effective intelligence-gathering tools.

Ewan McGregor stars as naive reporter Bob Wilton, a cuckold who flies off to cover the invasion of Iraq in a desperate attempt to impress his straying wife. More precisely, he flies to Kuwait, where he cools his heels at a press hotel, unable to gain access to the war zone. There he stumbles across Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a twitchy ex-Special Forces man with a tale to tell about the Army's interest in mind control, ESP and stopping goats' hearts.

Cassady brings Wilton into Iraq under his badge, and as Clooney and McGregor do their best Hope and Crosby routine, the story see-saws between their present-day shenanigans and Cassady's post-Vietnam years, when he was inducted into the secret-ops world by Army bigwig/New Age guru Bill Django. Based on real-life figure Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon—whose proposed "First Earth Battalion" is mirrored in the film's New Earth Army—Jeff Bridges' Django is a gung-ho version of The Dude, his slacker hero of The Big Lebowski. He wants to be "the first superpower with superpowers."

To Django, his men were "Jedi Warriors," which pays off mostly in the form of a running series of Star Wars jokes; McGregor, of course, played a youthful Obi-Wan Kenobi in the series, but here is anything but a Jedi—"I don't know what that means," he complains when Cassady suggests he might have such hidden strength. It's a good gag that's much funnier the first few times it's used; eventually, one feels slightly insulted, as if the filmmakers thought their audience might miss a reference to some of the highest-grossing, most popular films of all time.

But if they sometimes drop the ball, the actors get it, especially Clooney—nobody working today can bring off a comedic mustache like him—and, as his nemesis Larry Hooper, Kevin Spacey. In contrast to Cassady's flower-power ways, Hooper is drawn to the "dark side" of their work (yes, more Star Wars) and Spacey has a few great scenes as the sneering, obnoxious suck-up. It's both illuminating and something of a letdown when his generic callousness becomes the centerpiece of the film's third act—when, after a lighthearted ride across the sand, we're asked to learn a Big Lesson. The film loses its way for good in an Animal House-style finale (pot brownies in the Dean's office, essentially), but by then, like good New Earth Army soldiers, we're ready to forgive.

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This week—as usual—the Valley film scene also has some lesser-known films on offer in special screenings, including a look at dark doings in our political history, a drama about two women's Midwestern love affair, and a '40s-era film noir about a doomed road trip (hint: spring for a bus ticket). Also coming to the area over the next few days are a young filmmaker's film showcase and what may well be the most famous movie of all time, newly remastered.

Starting it all off is 638 Ways to Kill Castro, Dollan Cannell's 2006 documentary about—do I need to say it? Famously detested by generations of American government, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has nonetheless proved to be one of the United States' most implacable adversaries, surviving not only the infamous embargo but also the increasingly ridiculous assassination plots Cannell's film attributes to the CIA and Cuban exiles (exploding cigars, poisonous pens, and other Boris-and-Natasha schemes.) And lest anyone think the idea is just a kooky historical hiccup, Cannell includes an interview with incumbent U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who says she would "welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro." Interested parties can catch it in a free screening at Northampton's Media Education Foundation at 7 p.m. Friday.

Just across Main Street on Friday night, the Academy of Music hosts the lesbian drama Hannah Free in its Western Massachusetts premiere. Starring television icon Sharon Gless (who has had "honorary lesbian" status—at least with my own gay mom—since starring in '80s cop series Cagney & Lacey), Wendy Jo Carlton's film is the story of Hannah (Gless) and Rachel, two Midwestern kids whose love runs up against the expectations of their time. Interweaving the present and the past, the story details a relationship whose devotion outlasts a world war, marriage and more. Presented as part of the Out! For Reel film series, it lights up the screen at 7:30 p.m.

Not to be outdone, Northampton's Pleasant Street Theater follows up the Shocktober series of horror films with NOIRvember, a series of under-appreciated mid-century film noir. The three-dollar screenings take place at midnight every Saturday during the month, with each selection preceded by a cliff-hanger episode of a 1937 Dick Tracy serial. This week, filmgoers can catch the 1945 film Detour, a "69-minute grade-Z production" that nonetheless has proved to be an enduring testament to the stylistic verve of director Edgar G. Ulmer. In it, a broke piano player hitchhikes west to find his singer girlfriend, only to get mixed up in murder and fraud—the greatest of which may be the story he's telling us, the audience.

Cross the bridge toward Hadley and two more special events await this week. At 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, Amherst Cinema presents the 3rd Annual Youth Film Showcase: Cultures of Peace, featuring films about social justice, the environment, and cultural diversity by local under-18 directors.

Finally, Cinemark Hadley will present an encore presentation of The Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Event this Tuesday at 6:30. It's the septuagennial extras that make this show special: in addition to a print remastered using the original film source and projection format, the night features an introduction from film historian Robert Osborne and the short film To Oz! The Making of a Classic, which delves into the process that took the L. Frank Baum book from page to screen, and includes period interviews, production footage and rarely seen musical outtakes.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

Author: Jack Brown

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