Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

Don’t stand so close to me: Submission (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

While it was likely in production before the “Me Too” movement took hold, writer-director Richard Levine’s Submission feels tailor-made for the current conversation regarding sex, power and patriarchy in the workplace; in this case, the world of academia.

Based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel “Blue Angel” (itself a modern re-imagining of the narrative driving the eponymous 1930 Josef von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings), Submission stars Stanley Tucci as Ted Swensen, a liberal arts college professor who teaches writing. A walking cliché, Ted is a blocked novelist whose one acclaimed work (a novel called “The Blue Angel”, surprise surprise) is long behind him.

As Woody Allen once said, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” And so Ted has resigned himself to a life of tenured security and quiet desperation. You could say the same about his marriage. He has a loving wife (Kyra Sedgewick), who empathizes with his droll assessments of dreaded soirées with his stuffy colleagues. Their marriage is cozy, if not remarkable; it’s comfortable, like a favored pair of worn slippers.

You’re beginning to wonder when that boulder is going to crash through the window to break up all of this monotony and knock the dust off Ted’s typewriter keys, aren’t you?

Her name is Angela (Addison Timlin), a new pupil in Ted’s class. At first appearing sullen and withdrawn, Angela’s demeanor noticeably brightens once she’s one-on-one with Ted after class. When she showers praise on “The Blue Angel”, Ted is flattered, but keeps his tone cautiously neutral as he agrees to read over the “first chapter” of her novel.

Ted’s skepticism vanishes as he realizes Angela’s writing is not only much better than he expected; it demonstrates a remarkably developed voice for a person of her age. He casually asks her if she has any more pages that he can look over, and critique. Of course she does. The hook is set. However, the question soon becomes: who is reeling in whom?

While we’ve seen this movie before (it’s a little bit Educating Rita, a bit more of All About Eve, and a whole lotta Election), it is bolstered by strong performances from Tucci and Timlin, as well as by the supporting cast. As I noted at the top of the review, I don’t think that this film was consciously intended as a nod to “woke” culture, but we’ll take it.

Having a wild weekend: Girls vs. Gangsters (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

As far as wacky adventure-comedies concerning young Chinese women having a wild and woolly bachelorette weekend in an exotic foreign city go, I suppose you could do worse than Barbara Wong’s Girls vs. Gangsters 2. Perhaps arguably, as hard as you try…you could only do marginally worse.

I’m sensing your biggest question (aside from “WTF is Mike Tyson doing in this film?”) is: “How in the wide world of sports did I manage to miss “Girls vs. Gangsters 1”? Tricky, that question. There is an explanation. There was a previous 2014 Hong Kong film called Girls, also directed by Ms. Wong (aka Zhenzhen Huang), featuring the same characters. I’m afraid that I also managed to miss that one, so don’t let that get you down.

So anyway, our fun-loving trio Hei Man, Kimmy, and Ka Nam (Ivy Chen, Fiona Sit and Ning Chang) have been BFFs since high school. One of them is set to tie the knot, so the girls decide to celebrate by taking up an invitation from a mutual friend who is currently working on a film in Vietnam to fly in and hang out for the weekend. It gets a little fuzzy from there. They visit a huge estate owned by a local gangster, engage in a drinking contest, and wake up the next morning on a beach, naked and chained to each other. Fun!

The remainder of the film (which grinds on and on…too lengthy at nearly 2 hours) has them attempting to retrace their steps, find the member of their party who is missing, and figure out why one of them has a tattoo of some random dude on her neck. If it’s starting to sound suspiciously like the Hangover franchise meets Bridesmaids, your suspicions are well-founded. And by the time the gals encounter Mike Tyson (living in a jungle compound), you may begin to suspect that someone slipped a mickey in your drink, too.

The locales are colorful, and the three leads bring a certain goofy, manic energy to the table, but the film is ultimately too over-the-top for its own good. Also, something may have been lost in translation, but employing a line like “You’ll be raped 100 times!” for comic intent is questionable in any modern comedy; much less one directed by a woman.

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk. Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

Run for the shadows: Top 10 Film Noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2018)

It’s been a dark week here in Seattle. I actually mean that in a good way. Film noir expert/revivalist Eddie Muller brought his “Noir City” mini-festival to town (sponsored here by SIFF), hosting seven days of screenings at local theaters. Muller’s traveling exhibition gives audiences around the country a chance to catch films from the “classic” noir cycle on the big screen. That’s what got me thinking about my favorite genre entries.

And thinking. And thinking.

This is one of the toughest “top 10” lists I’ve tackled, because I could easily do a “top 100”. Out of the 3700 titles in my personal movie collection (I know…it’s an illness), over 800 fall in the noir/neo-noir/mystery categories. One could say I’m a little obsessed.

I had to narrow it down this way: which noirs have I re-watched the most times? That was the chief criteria behind these selections. So note going in that this is not designed to be my definitive assemblage of the most “historically important”, or “classic” noirs of all time (although several of these titles might be considered as such). These are purely personal favorites, so if this compels you to fire off a “You Philistine! I cannot believe you overlooked [insert title here]!!!” response, your indignation is duly noted beforehand.

One more note. I’m fully aware that most film scholar types generally define the “classic noir cycle” as cynical, darkly atmospheric B&W crime dramas produced between 1940 and 1959; consequently any similar entries going forward automatically get tossed into the “neo” noir bin. That said, there are some (like yours truly) who respectfully argue that the Force remains strong, at least through the mid-1970s. And so it goes. Alphabetically:

Ace in the Hole – Billy Wilder’s 1951 film is one of the bleakest noirs ever made:

Charles Tatum: What’s that big story to get me outta here? […] I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really!

Charles Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell-if you’d only toss that cigar out the window. Real far…all the way to Los Alamos. And BOOM! (He chuckles) Now there would be a story.

Tatum (played to the hilt by Kirk Douglas) is a cynical big city newspaper reporter who drifts into a small New Mexico burg after burning one too many bridges with his former employers at a New York City daily. Determined to weasel his way back to the top (by any means necessary, as it turns out), he bullies his way into a gig with a local rag, where he impatiently awaits The Big Story that will rocket him back to the metropolitan beat.

He’s being sarcastic when he exhorts his co-workers in the sleepy hick town newsroom to get out there and make some news for him to capitalize on. But the irony in Wilder’s screenplay (co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Tatum; in his attempt to purloin and manipulate the scenario of a man trapped in a cave-in into a star-making “exclusive” for himself, it’s Tatum who ultimately becomes The Big Story. Great writing, directing and acting make it a winner.

Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you put together a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle– This vastly under-appreciated 1973 crime drama/character study from director Peter Yates features one of the last truly great performances from genre icon Robert Mitchum, at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best as an aging hood. Peter Boyle excels in a low-key performance as a low-rent hit man, as does Richard Jordan, playing a cynical and manipulative Fed. Steven Keats steals all his scenes as a scuzzy black market gun dealer. Paul Monash adapted his screenplay from the novel by George P. Higgins. A tough and lean slice of American neo-realism, enhanced by DP Victor J. Kemper’s gritty, atmospheric use of the autumnal Boston locales.

High and Low – Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, the film plays as a straightforward police procedural; it’s engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself as more than a genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it feels quite contemporary).

Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich directed this influential 1955 pulp noir, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Ralph Meeker is the epitome of cool as hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer, who picks up a half-crazed (and half-naked) escapee from “the laughing house” (Cloris Leachman) one fateful evening after she flags him down on the highway. This sets off a chain of events that leads Hammer from run-ins with low-rent thugs to embroilment with a complex conspiracy involving a government scientist and a box of radioactive “whatsit” coveted by a number of interested parties.

The sometimes confounding plot takes a back seat to the film’s groundbreaking look and feel. The inventive camera angles, the expressive black and white cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), the shocking violence, and the nihilism of the characters combine to make this quite unlike any other American film from the mid-50s.

The film is said to have had an influence on the French New Wave (you can see that link when you pair it up with Godard’s Breathless). British director Alex Cox paid homage in his 1984 cult film, Repo Man (both films include a crazed scientist driving around with a box of glowing radioactive material in the trunk), and Tarantino featured a suspiciously similar box of mysterious “whatsit” in Pulp Fiction.

Night Moves – In Arthur Penn’s 1975 sleeper, which you could call an “existential noir”, Gene Hackman delivers one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s intelligent, multi-layered screenplay parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail. I think I’ve just talked myself into watching it again.

Strangers on a Train– There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train.

Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage.

As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The  silver-tongued sociopath Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime!

Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

Sunset Boulevard – Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination in 1950 from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…the Best Picture statuette went to All About Eve that year). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer (and legendary director in his own right) Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder coscripted with Leigh Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

Sweet Smell of Success– Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

Touch of Evil – Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated (and oft-imitated) opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and stands as one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

Tell me why: A therapeutic mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2018)

In a 2016 piece about the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I wrote:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

Well, that didn’t take. Which reminds me-remember what happened a year ago this month? Here’s a quick refresher (from the Washington Times-February 15th, 2017):

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

In case you missed it, President Trump did, in fact, sign the bill into law. As expected.

So how did that work out for us? Remember Vegas? Watched any news…this week?

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

As the late great Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip I’ve included below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.” What Harry said.

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen (Columbine survivors)

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Psycho Killer” – The Talking Heads

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

Size matters not: Big Sonia (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2018)

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

— Helen Keller

As a corollary to my review of 12 Years a Slave, I referenced Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, making this observation:

[Shoah] is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted.

There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary, Big Sonia, where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer). But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world.

Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. An eighty-something widow, she lives in Kansas City and runs her own business, John’s Tailoring (named after her late husband, who started the modest shop many years ago). Located in an otherwise abandoned mall, the shop nonetheless boasts a sizeable base of dedicated customers, who are really more of an extended family.

You can see what earns the customers’ loyalty; the warm, personable Sonia has an infectious enthusiasm for life. This may seem unremarkable in and of itself; as we’ve all known people who can “light up a room”. But once you learn her history, it’s astounding.

Because you see, Sonia is not only the last proprietress standing in the empty mall, but one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. No Holocaust survivor’s tale is a happy one, but Sonia’s is particularly harrowing and heartbreaking. During the war, she endured death marches and internment at several concentration camps. When she was 15, she watched helplessly as her mother was herded into the gas chambers. On liberation day, fate dealt her a cruel blow when she was accidentally shot through the chest.

Those experiences would break anyone’s spirit; but Sonia managed to move on with her life, eventually meeting and marrying fellow survivor John. To be sure, Sonia and her husband, who both maintained upbeat attitudes, were still haunted by their horrible wartime experiences (the couple’s now adult children recount how they would sometimes be awakened at night by their late father, who would scream in his sleep). Even after her husband passed away, Sonia refused to give in the dark side; devoting herself to the shop.

Running the shop is only her day job. Not content to rest on her laurels, Sonia devotes much of her spare time to community involvement. Rather than suppressing the darkest days of her life, she speaks about them publicly, and frequently. Her mission, however, is not to bring people down, but to lift them up. In essence, her message is: You think you’ve got insurmountable problems in your life? Look at the hand I was dealt. I have every conceivable right to be bitter, angry, and depressed. Yet I choose to be an optimist.

Even when she is given notice to vacate the mall, her optimism doesn’t falter (no spoilers). And there are other surprises in store as the film makers slowly unpeel the many layers of this remarkable woman’s resolve and the depth of her empathy for others (by the way, co-director Warshawski is Sonia’s granddaughter, but commendably maintains a  sense of intimacy without turning her portrait into a glorified home movie).

Sonia certainly puts me to shame. I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. After seeing this woman in action, one is reminded of Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “Judge me by my size, do you?” And, Sonia has a major edge on Yoda…she apparently has a killer-bee homemade gefilte fish recipe. Yummy delish!

Be kind…please rewind

By Dennis Hartley

In lieu of ingesting some undoubtedly ill-advised form of  self-medication, I kept my hands busy via furtive live Tweeting during President Donald J. Trump’s first State of the Union address last night. I concluded with this  somewhat glum observation:

In an effort to cheer myself up this morning, I thought I’d mosey over to the War Room,  see what’s going on there, and stumbled across a post I wrote last August, marking the 72nd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, In the preface to the piece, I wrote:

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). This past January, they moved the hands 30 seconds closer:

“This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. […]

It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days.”

I needn’t remind you that 6 months on, Donald J. Trump continues to be President of the United States. Like the scientists said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms. And the Master of 3am Tweets has those nuclear codes.

Good times.

Well, here we one year later at the end of January 2018, and bang on time (bad choice of words?)…The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has handed down their latest edict on the state of the Doomsday Clock.

The news is not good:

The year just past proved perilous and chaotic, a year in which many of the risks foreshadowed in our last Clock statement came into full relief. In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.

Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists focuses on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging technologies, the nuclear landscape takes center stage in this year’s Clock statement. Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions [sic] . Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing.

Oh, god.

To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger—and its immediacy. […]

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board believes the perilous world security situation just described would, in itself, justify moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.

But there has also been a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions. In 2017, the United States backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges. Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions—or understand when US pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surreal sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening.

Holy shitsnacks. So what time is it now…exactly?

Because of the extraordinary danger of the current moment, the Science and Security Board today moves the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes to midnight—the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.

The Science and Security Board hopes this resetting of the Clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant—as an urgent warning of global danger. The time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past. The time for the citizens of the world to demand such action is now:


#What they said. In the meantime,  please enjoy this relaxing music.

Sew into you: Phantom Thread (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2018)

It wasn’t just me. Halfway through Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s claustrophobic chamber drama examining the pitfalls of obsessive, overly-possessive love in its many-splintered guises, I began to think “Uh-Hitchcock’s Rebecca? Anyone?”

Fast-forward a few days, and I stumble across a Rolling Stone interview with Anderson:

[Anderson] “I love Hitchcock’s Rebecca so much, but I watch it and about halfway through, I always find myself wishing that Joan Fontaine would just say, “Right, I have had enough of your shit. I think I have had more than my fair share of your bullshit, so let me just get the fuck out of here.” [Laughs] And yet poor Joan has to keep putting up with it.”

Well okay, then.

If you are not familiar, Rebecca is Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who falls in love with a rich widower (Laurence Olivier). They quickly marry, and he spirits her away to his lavish estate. Initially, it’s like a storybook romance for the young bride; but she soon finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive housekeeper, who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules” (like one of those severe matrons in a women’s prison film). And indeed, the question becomes: is the young wife the mistress of the house…or is she its prisoner?

Which begs a question. Why do people tend to take more than their fair share of bullshit (and usually for much longer than they should) when they are in a less-than-ideal relationship? Is it as simple as Woody Allen conjectured…“Because we need the eggs”?

Ah, the mysteries of love. But back to the subject at hand, before I lose the thread (sorry).

Anderson has reenlisted his There Will Be Blood leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis. In (what is purported to be) his swan song role, Day-Lewis inhabits Reynolds Woodcock, a London-based, high-end fashion designer who caters to the fashionistas and blue bloods of 1950s Europe. As I watched Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon. He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?). At any rate, Woodcock is an atypical male, with an apprising gaze that suggests he’s mentally dressing every new woman he meets.

One day, while enjoying a country getaway, the well-appointed, metropolitan Woodcock espies the woman (or the muse?) of his dreams-a young waitress of modest means and nebulous European accent, named Alma (Vicky Krieps). It appears to be love at first sight, but appearances can be deceiving. The disparity between what Reynolds and Alma each defines as “love” informs the ensuing relationship, and the film’s central narrative.

Akin to the aforementioned Hitchcock film, the star-struck young woman/soon-to-be bride is spirited off to lavish digs, where she finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive figure who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules”. In this case, the third wheel isn’t the housekeeper, but rather Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), also his business partner. Without giving too much away, this is where Anderson’s film significantly parts ways with Hitchcock’s; as the issue of who is the “warden” and who is the “prisoner” in this love relationship becomes a shifting dynamic.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, there’s always a tenuous “balance of power” in any relationship, personal or familial. In this respect, Phantom Thread, while a unique entry in an already offbeat canon, does retain certain themes prevalent throughout Anderson’s oeuvre. As I observed in my review of Anderson’s 2012 drama, The Master:

And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in “Hard Eight”, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights”, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in “Magnolia”, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood”).

Obviously, there is no “father/son” (nor “father/daughter”-thank god) analogy to Reynold and Alma’s love affair in Phantom Thread, but their relationship does vacillate between husband/wife, artist/muse, mentor/apprentice, and (in its own fashion) master/servant.

It seems redundant to tell you that Daniel Day-Lewis’ typically immersive performance is nothing short of astonishing. If he really is hanging up his Oscar-baiting shoes after this one, I’m missing him already (as is the Academy, apparently…he snagged a Best Actor nomination earlier this week). Krieps and Manville (up for Best Supporting Actress) are also quite wonderful. Like most of the director’s work, it may not be for all tastes, but if you are up for a challenge and willing to pay attention, this movie is tailor-made for you.

In Dreams: Farewell, Ursula K. Le Guin

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2018)

Geek flags at half-staff. Earlier today, we learned of the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin, sci-fi/fantasy writer extraordinaire. She was one of the last of a classic generation…Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury. She once said: “I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.” It’s a huge loss. My favorite film adaptation of a Le Guin story is “The Lathe of Heaven”, which I wrote about a few years back…

(This review originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo, July 21, 2007)

One of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films is The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV” sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy.

Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.