This Week's Attractions

The Hunting of the President

Opens Fri., July 23, at Harvard Exit

In this two-fisted documentary based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' 2000 book, The Hunting of the President, former Clinton Chief of Staff Betsey Wright (the model for Kathy Bates' character in Primary Colors) says, "There's something so horrible about a politician having groupies throwing themselves at him, kissing his feet all the time." No, Betsey—his feet weren't the problem. Another appendage was responsible for delivering America into the hands of demented right-wingers, and pro-Bill filmmakers Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry go way too easy on him for it.

But they go into riveting detail about the larger crime that should make us all go berserk: the corruption of the judiciary by extremist maniacs who rely on big lies and big money to thwart the majority. It turns out Hillary wasn't kidding—there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy, as bizarrely byzantine as the one in Oliver Stone's JFK, only this nightmare is no fantasy.

There are way too many figures here, from shadowy billionaire puppet master Richard Mellon Scaife and a KKK– approved ex–Arkansas Supreme Court justice all the way down to the scarily Deliverance-like denizens of the Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America. Hunting makes reference to surveillance equipment in blue Samsonite briefcases, slimy legal advisers to Paula Jones known as "the Elves," secret meetings aboard white-trash houseboats, and a Scaife-funded Jerry Falwell "documentary" charging Clinton with incest, drug smuggling, and murder.

The underhanded dealings fly faster than cash from a croupier at a crooked casino, and it's tough to keep track of them all. Despite some skillful editing and comical old movie clips thrown in to break up the wordiness and talking heads, the film's confusing conspiracy narrative almost collapses into its own inchoate indignation.

Fortunately, Hunting has a brilliant bad guy to help focus our irate attention: dimple-cheeked demon Kenneth Starr, corruptly appointed by a sinister cabal led by Darth Rehnquist to run the hilariously nonindependent Office of Independent Counsel. The movie makes it clear that Starr's quest for truth was a crock from the start. The Whitewater land-deal charges were ridiculous, but Starr was so good at playing the scandal-hungry press with illegal leaks that few Americans today even remember the report exonerating the Clintons.

The emotional core of the film is Starr's victim Susan McDougal. Starr got her husband, Jim McDougal, the manic- depressive madman behind Whitewater, to change his story and implicate the Clintons. When she refused to slime the Clintons—to lie, as she puts it—Starr flung her into prison in a red uniform ordinarily worn by baby-murderer mothers, so that male inmates, thinking her a baby killer, would urinate, spit on, and masturbate on her while calling her names. Her husband demanded that she come over to Starr's dark side, or else he would never speak to her again. "And he never did," she says. (He died in prison, still estranged, in 1998.) Tears well up in her eyes until she points to the camera and quaveringly implores, "Can you turn that off?"

Unlike the Clintons, McDougal may have been culpable in her husband's bad business, but here she's just a radiantly saintly presence on-screen, a dazzling heroine you end up caring about more than the Clintons. The movie makes her a Joan of Arc painfully singed yet unconsumed by flames. (Clinton pardoned her in 2001.) It's mostly because of her that you leave the film burning to take up torch and pitchfork like the townsfolk in Frankenstein and carve Starr some new dimples. Hunting is not as well done as Fahrenheit 9/11, but the emotions it incites are familiar—and infuriating. (NR) TIM APPELO

The Twilight Samurai

Runs Fri., July 23–Thurs., July 29, at Varsity

If there were some wonderful digital editing tool that could remove Tom Cruise from every movie he's ever made, this is what The Last Samurai might've been like. Somber, solemn, pictorial, and humanist, Twilight was a huge hit in Japan, and the reasons for its success are very Japanese. For American audiences, they're likely to be somewhat lost in translation. There are no screaming samurai à la Toshiro Mifune (or even John Belushi); there are no colorful armies or burning temples out of Kurosawa. The movie is a little closer to Yasujiro Ozu—a static study of family life in all its undynamic drama. A little blood is spilled and a few samurai are slain, but the key thing is kinship.

Mocked as "the twilight samurai" by his colleagues in a feudal castle, circa 1868, for his habit of rushing home each evening after work to run his single-parent household, widowed warehouse clerk Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a medieval salaryman: shabby, unwashed, and perpetually beleaguered. He only seems content in the run-down household he occupies with his senile mother and his two adorable daughters, ages 5 and 10. (The younger girl, Ito, narrates from the perspective of her old age in the 20th century.) Iguchi still dresses the part of his warrior caste, with ritual sword and kimono, but at home he's more like Mr. Samurai Mom—cooking, cleaning, tending the garden, working with his daughters to make pet cages out of bamboo for an extra buck. We later learn that he sold his long sword to help pay for his wife's funeral; now he carries only the secondary short sword, which has a separate school of technique associated with it.

What makes Twilight interesting among recent samurai flicks is its emphasis on family over swordsmanship. That also makes it rather muted and slow for Western audiences. Veteran director Yoji Yamada is celebrating the twilight of an era— just before the Meiji Restoration, to be precise—when the old medieval samurai codes and clans were giving way to the new century. Twilight is intensely nostalgic for those older, simpler times, when social roles were delineated with the neat precision of a steel blade; there are peasants, samurai, and the feudal lords above. Everyone knows their place, no one more than Iguchi—even though he wouldn't mind slipping down the class ladder. The movie doesn't present this rigid social order as being fair, however; several times we see the bodies of peasant famine victims, mostly children, floating down the river from the countryside. Iguchi isn't quite so desperate, and he knows his humble obedience will keep his own kids fed.

The film's stasis is mildly disturbed when a potential love interest appears for Iguchi (though no one in this emotionally pent-up world ever uses the word "love"), and more so when Iguchi is given a dangerous assignment to assassinate a rogue samurai. He's frank about having lost the will to fight or kill, yet he must accept or his daughters will starve, which eventually gives the film a little dramatic urgency. Overall, though, Twilight is more of a museum piece than a movie, but even old artifacts can have the power to move us, however slowly. It's a credit to Yamada's patient hand that at no time during the film does one feel tempted to press Control-Z to restore Tom Cruise and return to the modern world. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

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