All posts by Dennis Hartley

Eat them up, yum: Top 10 Foodie Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2008)

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I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Ice Storm, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Alice’s Restaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? But TV doesn’t count.)

Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there a Walton family Thanksgiving thingy?) but apparently they are not  among my favorites. One theme that I can easily relate to, however, are movies about food (or with  at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:

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Big Night-This is one film that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters demonstrates with rather voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by an endearingly hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve (happy holidays!), which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. It might take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at  a gourmet eatery.

When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film.

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.

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Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A serio-comic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society,directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, let’s say, a “professional” eye.

In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city). One sequence, involving a hilarious, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing.

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Diner-This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”.

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

Tom Jones– Does it require an explanation?

But he plays one on TV-Bill Nye: Science Guy (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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In a nonsensical world such as ours, it somehow makes perfect sense that it took a Cornell-educated Boeing engineer-turned TV sketch comic-turned-goofy kid’s science show host to become logic’s ultimate champion in the sometimes downright insane public debate among (alleged) adults regarding human-caused global warming.

Such is the long strange trip of Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy”, recounted in a new “warts and all” documentary by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg called (wait for it) Bill Nye: Science Guy. While the filmmakers’ non-linear structure (which vacillates abruptly between eco-doc,  spotty biography and science lesson) takes acclimation, there does seem to be a method to the madness.

Is there “madness” behind Nye’s transition from the bubbly “Science Guy” persona to the relatively more glum-faced crusader we have seen in more recent years taking the science deniers to task? Even the film’s subject himself is unsure of exactly “who” he is at times; as revealed in a fascinating segment where Nye is interviewed by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, who is conducting a study on the effects of celebrity and fame on the brain and the psyche.

She sees in Nye “a great test case” with which to explore her thesis. After admitting that the pressures of fame have made him “close [himself] off” in his public and personal life, Nye suddenly seems palpably (and uncharacteristically) uncomfortable in front of the camera.

As if to further assure us that they are not making a hagiography , the film makers allow some of their subject’s former TV collaborators to dish some passive-aggressive disgruntlement that suggests Nye’s desire for fame and fortune (in the early days, at least) may have trumped any altruistic intentions to bring science to the masses. That said, there are still a number of admirers like Neil deGrasse Tyson on camera to praise Nye and his accomplishments.

My favorite part is where Nye goes to Kentucky for a public debate with anti-evolutionist Ken Ham. Nye first takes us along on a tour of Ham’s Creation Museum, where he finds one particular exhibit suggesting dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the same time to be “very troubling”. Luckily, for viewers like myself who are fully ready at this point to begin hurling objects at the screen, an antidote is administered soon thereafter with a shift back to reality (and sanity) when Nye attends the National Science Teacher’s Conference.

There are also some genuinely touching moments; during a family visit, Nye reveals that his brother and sister struggle with Ataxia, a rare neurological disease that affects balance and gait. While it is a hereditary affliction in his family (his father had it), Nye has never shown any signs to date of having inherited the malady himself. Consequently, he admits to suffering from a kind of “survivor’s guilt”, which has haunted him all of his adult life.

Another chunk is devoted to examining Nye’s current “day job” as CEO of The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by his mentor Carl Sagan (Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 PBS series Cosmos and is the creator-producer-writer of the 2014 sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, also appears throughout the film).

While they may not have crafted a definitive portrait of Nye, the filmmakers do manage to pass on his “Science Guy” persona’s infectious enthusiasm for the joy of discovery. And it did leave me with the comforting thought that he’s one of the good ones who are out there, holding up the line of defense against blind superstition and purposeful disinformation. In light of the current state of our union, we need all the help we can get in that department.

So nobly advanced…

By Dennis Hartley

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On this date in 1863, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address, which opens with: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Earlier today, channeling the spirit of this rich tradition of  presidential eloquence, our current commander-in-chief Donald Trump tweeted:

I’m sorry, memory fails…what was that Civil War all about again?

One and-a-half bar mitzvahs and a wedding: The Women’s Balcony (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2017)

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In his 2009 Guardian piece “Does Judaism discriminate against women?” Dan Rickman writes:

There is however, a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all Orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought: a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say everyday thanks a God “who has not made me a woman”. […]

There are many couples where the husband is involved and the woman is estranged. What drives this is the dissonance between women’s lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in traditional Jewish life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male) rabbis.

Oy. So that begs an obvious question: Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist? Funnily enough, that is the name of a 2014 Telegraph article by Emma Barnett (an Orthodox Jew by upbringing and a feminist), who writes:

You see as a fully paid up feminist, I demand and expect total equality in my secular life and yet some would view what I accept as normal in my religious Jewish world, as anything but equal. Although believe me, no women in my personal Jewish life feel oppressed; if anything, they are in total control. […]

In the secular world, common sense must be the order of the day. It isn’t reasonable not to have women occupying the same roles as men and vice versa. But in a religious sphere, where faith is the binding force of a group of people, rationale has less sway or place. If you started applying logic to the beliefs held in most faiths, things would start to fall apart pretty quickly at the seams. […]

Male-led religions present a big dilemma to feminists in the modern world. And yes, on this topic, I am a full fat hypocrite. But as they say, faith begins often where logic ends.

This dilemma lies at the heart of a warm, witty and wise new Israeli dramedy called The Women’s Balcony, from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.

The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. As the film opens, a small but lively and close-knit congregation, led by venerable Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) gather at their modest synagogue for a bar-mitzvah.

Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous celebration takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses mid-ceremony. Luckily, all survive, but sadly, the rabbi’s wife sustains serious injuries that require indefinite round-the-clock hospital care. The aging Rabbi Menashe, not in the best health himself, has a nervous breakdown.

This leaves the congregation with two major deficits; no place to worship until repairs can be facilitated, and no spiritual leader at the helm until the rabbi (hopefully) recovers from his debilitating mental trauma. A few days after the accident, several of the men from the congregation are discussing the future of the synagogue and decide to pray on it.

However, they realize that they are a few bodies short of a minyan (a quorum of 10), which they will need in order to conduct a service. They ask a young man who passes by.

As fate would have it, he happens to be a rabbi, who is more than happy to fetch some of his students and shore up the minyan. The men instantly take to the charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who quite quickly ingratiates himself as the “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly, perhaps, for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hastily remodeled synagogue eschews the open balcony model for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services.

The more the charming but duplicitous Rabbi David’s ultra-orthodox slip begins to show, the less enthralled are the women, who eventually find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. Still, they must step lightly; with marriages and long-time friendships on the rocks (much less the future of their once harmonious congregation) there’s much at stake.

This formidable coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts (Israeli comedian Orna Banai, in her first major screen role; popular Israeli singer Einat Sarouf, making her film debut; acclaimed Moroccan-born actress Evelin Hagoel; actress-comedian Yafit Asulin) who deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.

How this extended family resolves their fractious row is relayed with compassion and astute observation, steeped in what I once described in a review as “…a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).” That said (if I may re-appropriate a classic advertising slogan) “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” or in this case, to love Ben-Shimon and Nehama’s real Jewish wryness.

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2017)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

A special guest post: Looking for comedy in the Muslim world

By Brad Upton

Note: Brad Upton is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with during my stint in stand-up. He has just wrapped up a tour in Pakistan with several other comics, and has been posting on Facebook about his experience.  As we all know, there’s no crying in baseball…or comedy. Nonetheless, Brad wrote a post today that I found incredibly moving and inspiring; and in light of all the bellicose nationalist rhetoric coming from the top these days, it is a much-needed reminder that people are people, wherever you go. With his permission, I am re-publishing Brad’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

Please allow me to ramble.

Karachi, Pakistan

Last Wednesday night I went back in time and was able to relive what it was like when I started doing stand up. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, feeling the collective energy of the room, of the possibility….of the future. It felt like my beginning in 1984.

After a day of promotion, meals and being ferried throughout Karachi in traffic that can’t adequately be described other than a mass of scooters, motorcycles, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, buses, donkey carts, horseback and cars….none of them following any observable rules, we pulled up in front of a 5-story building on a side street. Everywhere we pull up in Karachi: a restaurant, studio, or hotel, a man or men, stand up and emerge from the shadows carrying highly modified automatic weapons. Blue slacks and blue polo shirts, this is security.

There are offices on the first floor. Five of us enter a hot, humid elevator that should probably only hold three. We emerge on the top floor. It certainly isn’t a bar, or a restaurant, or banquet room, or any kind of theater. It is an empty office space and this is where you find Karachi’s two-year-old, open mic comedy scene. There is a logo on the wall behind the comics proudly calling this place the Thot Spot. As we emerge from the elevator we can hear laughter as we slip quietly into the back of the room. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs. The room holds about 70 and is packed.

The room is electric with energy, each comic is getting big laughs. What takes me back in time is how the comics and audience are enthralled with what is happening. This vibe doesn’t exist at an open mic in the US; stand up is part of our culture and some of the comics have been going up for years.

This is different. This is new. This is fun. We’ve never done this. We’ve never had this. People are standing in front of their peers and talking about life in Karachi, their awkwardness, sex, politics, traffic, social media, dating, school, family, etc. Young Muslim men and women speaking their minds in ways that make their peers laugh.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned something VERY important. I THINK these are the topics. This entire show is being performed in Urdu. Many Pakistanis are bilingual but it seems Urdu is usually the first option.

I. Am. Mesmerized.

To hear stand up performed in a language I don’t understand is fascinating. I love the rhythm of the words and can quickly recognize an approaching punchline just by the pacing and nuances. I can hear the beats. I find myself laughing at jokes I don’t understand, verifying that laughter is contagious.

The audience and comics are aware that this night is different. The international professionals that have just arrived from Great Britain and the US will go up at the end and do 7-10 minutes each.

Our host, our organizer, our MC, Umar Rana, takes over the hosting duties at the conclusion of the Urdu sets and quickly converts the audience over to English. Keep in mind that myself, Dwight Slade and Shazia Mirza aren’t quite sure what we’re in for. We are almost sick with jet lag. We are confident, veteran professionals….but this is Pakistan. Will they like us? Have I chosen the right material? Will this joke make sense?

Suddenly I have the open mic feeling that I haven’t felt in over 30 years. I go first, followed by Dwight and Shazia. For all three of us, everything works. Every joke, every expression, every nuance. All three of us destroy and delight in the experience. The show wraps up and we stand around laughing and smiling and talking with our Pakistani cohorts. I suddenly have new friends!

This audience has given these pros a taste of what the weekend is going to be like. It is humbling. I witness what has happened at this open mic in Karachi and am proud of my profession. I got more out of this evening than they did. These people want to laugh and be entertained. These kids are Pakistan’s future. Inshallah.

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2017)

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If I liken the experience of watching Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film Loving Vincent as akin to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I am only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life.

It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a meticulously oil-painted frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature. The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise.

Our “detective” is Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of an Arles postman (Chris O’Dowd). A year after van Gogh’s suspicious death, Armand’s father entrusts his son with an undelivered letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Armand sets off to the bucolic countryside of Avers-sur-Oise that inspired many of van Gogh’s best paintings. As he encounters an ever-growing cast of characters ranging from the periphery to the inner circle of van Gogh’s daily life, Armand’s journey becomes a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts and contradictory impressions regarding the artist’s final chapter.

While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is handily the most visually resplendent one that I have seen. The film represents a 10-year labor of love by the filmmakers, who employed more than 100 artists to help achieve their vision…and it’s all up there on the screen. The narrative, however, is more on the “sketchy” side, if you know what I’m saying (I’m here all week).

Still, the film teasingly offers up some counter-myths to the conventional narrative that van Gogh was another tortured artist who had no choice but to check out early because he was just too damn sensitive for this cruel and unfeeling world. Maybe he wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger…hmm?

Granted, considering he produced 800 paintings (many considered priceless masterpieces) yet sold only one during his lifetime, and struggled with mental illness, it’s not like he didn’t have reasons to be depressed, but who can say with 100% certainty that there really was no hope left in sight, on that starry, starry night? I’d wager the answer lies on his canvasses; because every picture tells a story…don’t it?

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

However, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), I must say the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong…like this 1000+ word review).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

Days of future past?

By Dennis Hartley

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Yesterday, I had CNN on with the sound muted while doing household chores.  Before realizing what was being shown, I caught strikingly apocalyptic images of the Northern California firestorm out of the corner of my eye. For a split second, a deep dark dread came over me, and the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh my god…he’s really done it. He has actually started World War III.”

Seriously.

Why would I even think that? I’m a somewhat rational person.

Hiroshima aftermath, August 1945

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Napa wildfire aftermath, October 2017

Paranoia…or premonition? I guess that’s where the zeitgeist is now.

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.