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Hopeless

By Shawn Stone

No End in Sight

Directed by Charles Ferguson

 

It would be nice to write something like, “At this late date, there’s no real point in going over the catastrophic mistakes made in the prosecution of the Iraq War and its aftermath.” Unfortunately, with talk of the U.S. military being in Iraq for the next 10 years, and the usual idiots—more about them in a minute—agitating for military action against Iran, taking a look at the reasons why everything fell apart might be prudent.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson employs a straightforward approach to detailing the way a quick and successful military action to depose Saddam Hussein turned into a nightmarish occupation almost overnight. You probably know the outline: We invaded, we liberated, we didn’t police the streets or prevent looting, and then everything went to hell. We dissolved the Iraqi army, which threw thousands of armed men out of work, depriving them and their families of any means of support.

Ferguson takes us into the gritty details, interviewing those who were on the ground in Iraq early—the people who had some notion of what was really going on, including the first “viceroy” of the occupation, Jay Garner, and members of the foreign service and the military. The shattering thing is, even though these people had a clue how not to make the situation worse, one gets the sinking feeling that even if they were allowed to do all the “right” things, the occupation still would have failed.

Then there are the aforementioned “usual idiots.” You know the names; they’re the folks who often received awards when they left Iraq behind, in ruins. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Ambassador Paul Bremmer. Bernard Kerik, Condoleeza Rice, Douglas Feith, George Tenet, and George W. Bush. Soberly, No End in Sight catalogs the very real mistakes made—and it’s an ugly litany.

Along with using extensive news footage, Ferguson’s film also greatly benefits from a trio of Iraqi journalists who were on scene in the country to get interviews and raw footage. These powerful scenes document and underline the price ordinary Iraqis pay, every day, for our failure. It’s sobering, first, because the conditions under which millions live are unspeakable, and, second, because the eventual blowback from this is going to be hellish. What’s that cliché, “Karma is a bitch”?


Nice racket: Fogler and Walker in Balls of Fury.

The Ping of Pong

Balls of Fury

Directed by Robert Ben Garant

If you’ve seen the media blitz on Balls of Fury, then you’re probably assuming that Christopher Walken as Feng, the Medici version of a Chinatown ganglord, is the center of the movie. After all, Feng is a ping-pong fanatic, and Balls of Fury is a satire on ping-pong and other noncontact sports covered only on late-night cable. Walken certainly is amusing, doing a high-dudgeon spoof on his own persona and injecting it with lounge-lizard sleaze and a squib of homicidal mania via vintage James Bond villains. But though he’s by table in every scene, Walken doesn’t walk away with Balls’ comedic trophy—and that’s because almost every cast member is just as funny, albeit in a more subdued style.

The most subdued dude is Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), “the golden boy of table tennis” who experiences a humiliating defeat at age 12 (charming Brett DelBuono plays the young Randy), and retires to the supper-club circuit to paddle balls like a trained chimp. Fogler, a Tony award-winner, is pitch perfect, playing the pathetic Randy in a super sincere style that wins over the audience long before he gets to the girl and the underworld tournament organized by Feng. For at the nadir of his career—he’s fired from a cheesola gig after beaning a bystander with a pong cannonball—Randy is recruited by the FBI, specifically, by Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez), to infiltrate Feng’s criminal operation by way of Feng’s obsession with ping-pong. But first, Randy must win enough matches to earn an invitation to Feng’s tournament.

Mostly, the film is a lampoon of the machismo of high-stakes poker, TV wrestling, and martial-arts movies. Randy’s opponents all have a shtick (Thomas Lennon as a sadistic East German champion is the standout), and though these clichés are, well, clichéd, most of them are even funnier for being so due to the zealous acting and director Robert Ben Garant’s finely honed touch with silliness, absurdity, dead-on satire, and shifting gears between them. To use slow motion to dramatize the lack of drama in ping-pong is expected; to use CGI is inspired.

Randy’s love interest is Maggie (Maggie Q), the daughter of the grand master of table tennis (James Hong). Q, the martial-actress head-turner from Live Free or Die Hard, proves herself a deft comedienne in her scenes of Kill Bill spoofery. She’s even better after Maggie warms up to Randy’s humility. Though it drags a little in the middle, Balls of Fury provides mild-to-raucous chuckles most of the way through, and does so with a sweet-natured avoidance of grossness, puerility, or scatology.

—Ann Morrow


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