Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 22, 2017)

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

So, do you do anything special for Earth Day? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about, oh, 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one, far back as I can remember). At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, I’ve cobbled together my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. And, as long as you don’t print out a hard copy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation. The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-intentioned) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper. Powers Boothe portrays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide us with some mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this on cable recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan). The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”) in 2002. Do yourself a favor-clear a weekend!

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades (that’s why I was sad when Miazaki-san announced his retirement from directing). This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent offerings. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but most of the patented Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a ubiquitously violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun– I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film managed to do just that. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds might harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time that “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite to SF fans. Dern is the resident gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each one dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth has become barren of organic growth). While it’s just a 9 to 5 drudge to his blue collar shipmates, Dern’s character views his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand that the crew jettison the domes to make room for a more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up by his lonesome with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (named Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?). Oh-there is some ham being served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop, investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson nearly steals the film; his moving death scene has the added poignancy of preceding his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli (try to get past the skintight elephant bells, chest hair and disco moves, and focus on the lyrics

 

Wake up and dream: The Red Turtle *** & Your Name ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2017)

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In my 2010 review of a lovely, little-seen film from Mexico called Alamar, I wrote:

To say that “nothing happens” in Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s leisurely paced cinematic tone-poem, set against the backdrop of Mexico’s intoxicating Banco Chinchorro, is to deny that the rhythm of life has a pulse. […]. If you can’t wait for it to end so you can turn your phone back on and check all those “important” messages, I suspect that the film’s message, telegraphed in the sunlit shimmer of a crystalline coral reef, or in the light of love on a father’s face as he watches his son slowly drift off to sleep, is destined to never get through to you anyway.

I had a similar takeaway from The Red Turtle, the latest offering by Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli. Writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously rendered anime is a minimally-scripted paella made from equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Irish selkie/Venus-Aphrodite mythology, and, uh, the Book of Genesis.

Set in an indeterminate time period (educated guess: early-to-mid 19th Century), the tale centers on a shipwrecked (sailor? explorer? pirate? adventurer?) who gets washed up onto the beach of a tiny (Pacific?) island. An exploration of his new environs quickly gives indication that, save the birds, crabs, and baby sea turtles, he is completely, utterly, alone.

Whether or not he is destined to remain by his lonesome in a cruel and unfeeling universe will be revealed to you by the second act; in the interest of avoiding spoilers, all I am prepared to divulge beyond this point of the narrative is that yes – a red turtle is involved.

As I inferred earlier, de Wit’s film has a dearth of narrative and/or character development, but the stunning visuals help make up the deficit (in my experience, Studio Ghibli never fails to deliver the eye candy). Still, some viewers may find it tough going by the time the story enters its more conventional 3rd act, which does lean toward cliché.

The key to enjoying this film (should that be your wont) is to go in with no expectations, and get lost in its beauty; because (if I may again paraphrase from my Alamar review) “…analogous to the complex and delicate eco-system that sustains the reef, there is more going on just beneath the surface than meets the eye.” Because after all, as the great Jacques Cousteau cautioned… “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

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I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies over the years (OK, “decades” may be more apropos), but it’s been quite a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy, Your Name.  Adapted by the director from his own novel, Shinkai’s film has the distinction of being Japan’s most popular and largest-grossing anime (in-country) to not originate from the Studio Ghibli hit factory (the film’s limited U.S. run is being distributed by Funimation Films).

The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities.

Mitsuha, who was raised to be a modest country girl with traditional Japanese values, is consumed by a kind of urban wanderlust; eager to finish high school so she can escape her small town and break out on her own to seek adventure and excitement in Tokyo. Taki, on the other hand, takes his metropolitan lifestyle for granted, and plans on becoming an architect, or perhaps an artist. Mitsuha and Taki are both socially awkward.

You know where this is going, don’t you? There’s something else that Mitsuha and Taki are sharing. They’ve both been having very strange dreams as of late; Taki wakes up one morning, and it seems he’s still dreaming…because his physiology is decidedly female, and he’s living in a rural mountain village where people insist on calling him “Mitsuha” through the course of an eventful day at an unfamiliar high school. “She” goes to bed.

The next time Taki awakens, he’s Taki again (anatomy checks out correctly, much to his relief). However, everyone is giving him funny looks at school. His friends are asking him if he’s OK…and wondering why he was acting so weird the day before.

Once we next get to watch Mitsuha having a similar experience (she “dreams” she is a boy named Taki, lives in Tokyo, and spends an equally unsettling day at an unfamiliar high school), we start to put 2 + 2 together. These two are together…but not altogether. Together apart?

WTF is going on with these two? I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.

So I won’t. Because, a). I can’t afford to lose a reader, and b). It might spoil your fun. Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, metaphysical sci-fi, mystery, coming-of-age tale, humor, and even old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes…I laughed, and I cried). It’s a visual feast as well; the animation is outstanding. It’s not playing at a lot of theaters, so if it pops up in your neck of the woods, do not pass up an opportunity to catch it on the big screen.

Child’s guide to war: A film troika

By Dennis Hartley

(I originally posted this over at Hullabaloo on September 14, 2013. I’m re-posting it with no revisions, because sadly, it’s relevant once more.)

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Have you heard the reasons why?

(Yeah, we’ve heard it all before)

But have you seen the nation cry?

(Yeah, we’ve seen it all before)

-From “War Weary World” by The Call

 (*sigh*) So the boys are rattling their sabers yet again, and America girds its collective loins for possible involvement in Syraqistan or wherever (different day, same old shit). So far, it’s a war of words, and I sincerely hope it stays that way (sticks and stones, and all that). Most disturbing to me about this whole affair is how that endlessly-looped footage of gassed children is being used as a war mongering tool by our own government and an ever-compliant MSM. Yes, it’s horrible beyond words and a reprehensible act by any standards, but I seem to recall a brief and shining moment in this country when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (are American bombs any more discriminate?).

But perhaps I’m the one being childish, what with my naive pacifist wishes and hippy-dippy poster dreams. It’s a complicated world, and I’m just a simple farmer. A person of the land. The common clay of the American West. You know…a moron. That’s why I’m just the movie guy around these parts. That being said, I believe there’s something that the following movies, or more specifically their young protagonists can teach us about such matters. And so I’m spotlighting three essential films that offer an immediate ground-level view of the effects of war, filtered through the eyes of innocents, uncluttered by any political machinations or jingoist agendas. Hey, feel free to invite your favorite war hawk over for dinner and a movie. Just make sure that they are taking notes:

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Grave of the Fireflies– For many years, the term ‘anime’ conjured up visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in colorful, action-packed fantasy-adventures (generally targeting younger audiences). However, sometime around the mid-80s, the paradigm shifted when Japanese production houses like Studio Ghibli began to find international success with more eclectic, character-driven fare. One particularly transcendent example is writer-director Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama, Grave of the Fireflies.

While it is animated, and its protagonists are children, it is not necessarily a children’s film; its unflinching approach and anti-war subtext puts it in a league with Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. The story (based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel) takes place in Kobe in 1945, and concerns the travails of a teenage boy named Seita (voiced by Tsutomo Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), who are orphaned when their mother perishes during an Allied firebombing raid.

After brief lodgings with a less-than-hospitable aunt, the siblings have to fend for themselves. Do not expect a Hollywood ending (I wouldn’t recommend  it for children under 12). One commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film worth consideration is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. An obvious commonality, but precisely my point: The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

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Son of Babylon– This heartbreaking Iraqi drama is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War. As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. While the film alludes to the regional and international politics involved, the narrative is constructed in such a way that at the end of day, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bomb sorties or Saddam gassing his own people is moot.

That message is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, also searching for a missing loved one at a mass grave site sets her own suffering aside to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish,” she says, “…but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.” One thing I can say (aside that this emotionally shattering film should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else wielding the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

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Testament– Originally a PBS American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander (she lost to Shirley MacLaine). Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberately paced approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where the afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that a number of nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a whole different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; a wise decision by the filmmakers because it helps us zero in on the essential humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amid such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it all so frighteningly believable and difficult to shake off. As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film…“Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

The April Fools: Top 10 Mockumentaries

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 1, 2017)

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Since this is April Fool’s Day, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some filmmakers who have made it their mission to yank on our lanyards (does that hurt?). So, in no particular ranking order, here are my selections for the Top 10 Mockumentaries:

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Best in Show-Christopher Guest’s name has become synonymous with the word “mockumentary”, and for good reason. He and his repertory of actors and co-writers have delivered some of the best in the last decade or two (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration), and this gentle poke at dog lovers represents his own “best in show” so far. Guest delivers a network narrative-style study of various participants who are converging (with pooches in tow) to compete at a national dog show. Perhaps it is unfair to single anyone out with such a tight comic ensemble in play, but Fred Willard is a definite highlight as a witless TV commentator (is that redundant?) and Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock chew major scenery as an obnoxious yuppie couple. More standouts: Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Larry Miller and Eugene Levy (who co-scripted).

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The Blair Witch Project-For better or for worse, there is no denying the impact that this cleverly marketed horror flick has had on modern film making. In the event that you spent 1999 in a coma, this is the one where a crew of amateur actors were turned loose in some dark and scary woods, armed with camping gear, video cameras and a plot point or two provided by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who then proceeded to play creepy, “gotcha” mind games with their young troupe. The result was surprisingly effective, because after all, it’s the idea that “something” in the woods is out to get you which brings on the nightmares-not some guy in a rubber monster suit lurching about in front of the camera. There are still some debates raging whether the similar low budget fright, The Last Broadcast (1998) or the more obscure 1980 cult item Cannibal Holocaust deserves the kudos (or the blame) for kick-starting the “found footage” genre.

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Computer Chess-In his off-kilter 2013 “80s retro” mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski achieves verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it appear you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws a bevy of idiosyncratic characters together, shakes the jar, and then steps back to watch what happens. However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things start to get weird…then weirder. The most original sci-fi movie I’ve seen in a while. (My full review),

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Drop Dead Gorgeous– Mocking beauty contests is almost too easy, but as far as guilty pleasures go, Michael Patrick Jann’s faux backstage documentary from 1999 about a Minnesota pageant that goes horribly wrong is a winner. Star Kirsten Dunst plays it straight, and is flanked by a hammy Ellen Barkin (an absolute riot as her trailer-trash mom) and an over-the-top Kirstie Alley as the Stage Mother From Hell. Denise Richards shows a real flair for comedy with a show-stopping performance number dedicated to the “special fella in her life”, a Mr. J. Christ. Also with Alison Janey, Brittany Murphy and Amy Adams. The film is reminiscent of the (more low-key) 1975 pageant spoof Smile.

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F for Fake-“This is a promise,” Orson Welles intones, looking directly into the camera, “For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Ay, but here’s the rub: This playful ‘documentary’ about Elmyr de Hory (“the world’s greatest art forger”) and his biographer Clifford Irving (infamous for his own fakery) runs for 85 minutes. Ever feel like someone’s having you on? That’s the subject of Welles’ 1974 rumination on the meaning of art, and the art of the con. A musical score from the great Michel Legrand is a nice bonus. Not for all tastes; some may find it too scattershot, but there is a method to the madness, and attentive viewers will be rewarded. Even toward the end of a checkered career, with his prowess as a filmmaker arguably on the wane, any completed project by the great Welles demands your attention (at least once!).

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Hard Core Logo-Frequently compared with This is Spinal Tap, this film from iconoclastic Canadian director Bruce McDonald does Reiner’s film one better-it’s got real substance. Now, obviously I love Spinal Tap (otherwise it wouldn’t have been included on this “Top 10” list), but McDonald’s film mixes humor with genuine drama and poignancy, particularly in its portrayal of the complex, mercurial relationship between the two main characters, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) and Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie). Joe and Billy front a “legendary” D.I.Y. punk band called Hard Core Logo, who hit the road for a belated reunion tour. McDonald plays himself, as the director who is documenting what could turn out to be the band’s final hurrah. The film is full of great throwaway lines (“I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m eating corn chips and masturbating. Please leave a message.”). There are also a ton of obscure references in Noel S. Baker’s screenplay that truly dedicated rock music geeks (guilty!) will delight in. This is part of a trilogy (of sorts) by McDonald that includes Roadkill and Highway 61.

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Real Life-Stylistically speaking, this underrated 1979 gem from writer-director Albert Brooks presaged Christopher Guest & company’s successful mockumentary franchise by at least a decade. In fact, the screenplay was co-written by Guest alum Harry Shearer (along with Brooks’ long-time creative collaborator, Monica Mcgowan Johnson). Real Life is a brilliant take-off on the 1973 PBS series, An American Family (which I suppose can now be tagged as the original “reality TV” experiment). Brooks basically plays himself-a neurotic, narcissistic comedian who decides to direct a documentary that will intimately profile the daily life of a “perfect” American family. After vetting several candidates (represented via a montage of hilarious “tests” conducted at a behavioral studies institute), he decides on the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona (headed by the ever-wry Charles Grodin, who was born for this role). The film becomes funnier and funnier as it becomes more about the self-absorbed filmmaker himself (and his tremendous ego) rather than his subjects. Brooks takes a lot of jabs at Hollywood, and at clueless studio execs in particular. If you’ve never seen this one, you’re in for a real treat.

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Take the Money and Run-This is one of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funny films”. It’s also one of the seminal mockumentaries, and riotously funny from start to finish. Woody casts himself as bumbling career criminal Virgil Starkwell, who is the subject of this faux biopic. Narrated with tongue-in-cheek gravitas by veteran voice-over maestro Jackson Beck, the film traces Starkwell’s  trajectory from his early days as a petty criminal (knocking over gumball machines) to his career apex as a “notorious” bank robber. In one of the most singularly hilarious gags Allen has ever conceived, Virgil blows a heist by arguing with a bank manager over his penmanship on a scribbled stickup note that he has handed to a teller, who is very confused by the sentence that appears to read; “I have a gub.” A comedy classic, not to be missed. BTW-if you ever plan to break out of jail by wielding a fake revolver carved from a bar of soap…be sure to check the weather report!

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This is Spinal Tap– Director Rob Reiner also co-wrote this 1984 gem with his three stars-Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who play Spinal Tap founders Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins, respectively. Reiner is “rockumentary” filmmaker Marti Dibergi, who is tagging along with the hard rocking British outfit on a grueling tour of the states. By the time the film’s relatively brief 84 minutes have expired, no one (and I mean, no one) involved in the business of rock’n’roll has been spared the knife-the musicians, roadies, girlfriends, groupies, fans, band managers, rock journalists, concert promoters, record company execs, A & R reps, even record store clerks…you name it, they all get bagged and tagged. Admittedly, a lot of the jokes are pretty “inside”; I’ve noticed that the people who tend to dismiss this film also tend to not be rock music aficionados (or perhaps even more tellingly, have never played in a band!). Nonetheless, a classic of its kind. Always remember-you can’t dust for vomit.

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True Stories-Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps- but for some reason, I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t even explain.

Paging Harry Caul

By Dennis Hartley

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Pre-Twitter: Nixon used to wander the White House in the wee hours, drunk as a skunk, talking to paintings of dead presidents.

At least he kept those 3 am ramblings to himself, God bless ‘im:

Trump really needs a new hobby. Maybe he can learn to play the sax.

Just watch it through your fingers: Donald Cried ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2017)

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In my 2014 tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, I wrote:

You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

There are many things about Donald Cried that will likely make you cringe. In fact, the film’s titular character (played by its writer-director Kris Avedisian) is the type of role Hoffman would have felt quite comfortable tackling…expressly for the purpose of making us feel uncomfortable.

A sort of twisty cross between Vincent Gallo’s cringe-inducing black comedy Buffalo ’66 and Miguel Arteta’s equally discomfiting character study Chuck and Buck, Avedisian’s story centers on a thirty-something Wall Street banker named Peter (Jesse Wakeman) who returns to the blue-collar Rhode Island burg where he grew up to bury his grandmother and tidy up all of her affairs.

During his taxi ride from the train station to his late grandmother’s house, Peter realizes (much to his chagrin) that he has lost his wallet while in transit. Quickly exhausting all other options for assistance, the panicked Peter has little choice but to walk across the street, where his childhood pal Donald lives. We quickly glean why he just didn’t go there first-Donald is beyond the beyond.

Donald is overjoyed to see Peter again after all these years. Disturbingly overjoyed, like a deliriously happy puppy who dances around your legs like a dervish because he was sure you were abandoning him forever when you left the house for 2 minutes to check the mail. In other words. Donald seems oblivious to the time-space continuum. While Peter has chosen to put away childish things and engage the world of adult responsibility, Donald was frozen in carbonite at 15.

Still, if Peter is to stick to his timetable of wrapping up the grandmother business in 24 hours, Donald (who has a car) looks to be his only hope. From their first stop at the funeral home, it’s clear that Donald’s complete lack of a social filter is going to make this a painfully long 24 hours.

The tortuous path of the “man-child” is rather well-trod, particularly in modern indie filmdom. That said, there is a freshness to Avedisian’s take, as well as an intimate authenticity to the performances that invites empathy from the viewer. Once you get past the cringe-factor, you actually do care about the characters, especially when you realize we’ve all known a Donald (or a Peter) sometime or another. Perchance we’ve even seen one looking back at us from a mirror, no?

Thus spoke Nostradamus

By Dennis Hartley

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Michael Moore called it (again). From my 2016 Trumpland review:

It was clearly Moore’s intention that Trumpland (filmed October 7 and released a scant 2 weeks afterwards) would ideally be seen by as many people as possible before November 8. However, he was careful to cover all his bases. If there is one consistency about Michael Moore’s films, it is that they are prescient…and already, I can identify at least one nail he hit squarely on the head.

This comes in the form of another speculative scenario Moore lays out, this one for Trump supporters to envision, should the election go their way. Moore assures them that he feels their pain; as a fellow Midwesterner from a manufacturing town in neighboring Michigan, he “gets” the frustrations that have been building up within the ranks of a certain white, working-class demographic, why they are feeling squeezed out, and why Trump might appear to be their savior.

Suddenly, in a wonderfully theatrical flourish, Moore seems to shape-shift into a Trump voter. He talks about how they are going to feel on Election Day, how incredibly empowering it will be to put that “x” in the Trump box on their ballot card. It’s going to be the “…biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history” when their boy takes the White House. “It’s going to feel REAL good,” Moore assures them, “for about…a week.” Uh-oh. “A week?” What’s he mean by that?

It will kind of be like Brexit, Moore explains after a suitable dramatic pause to let things soak in. Remember how eager the Brexit supporters were to shake things up in their country, and give a big “fuck you” to Europe? Sure, they “won”. But then, buyer’s regret set in. There was even a desperate stab to petition for a re-vote, spearheaded by many of the very people who supported it!

OK, so maybe Trump voters haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but they will. Their soon-to-be Fearless Leader is sending up oodles of red flags with kleptocratic cabinet appointment after kleptocratic cabinet appointment. Now, that seems to be in direct contradiction to his campaign stance as champion of the working class…d’ya think? So…just give them time (and pitchforks).

Well, at least one Trump voter has had an epiphany about the man who wrote The Art of the Con Deal. One down, 59,999,999 to go.

All rise for the ice road trucker chucker

By Dennis Hartley

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As the confirmation hearings continue for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, we’re getting wind of some interesting rulings he has made through the course of his judicial career.  “Interesting” in the sense of giving us a glimpse of his character.

So far, it’s pointing south of “empathetic”. From Democracy Now:

One of the most riveting moments in the Gorsuch hearing occurred when Minnesota Senator Al Franken questioned Gorsuch about his ruling in a case involving a truck driver who got fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned his trailer that he was driving, because he was on the verge of freezing to death. The truck driver couldn’t drive off with the trailer, because the trailer’s brakes had frozen. In the case, Judge Gorsuch cast the sole dissent ruling in favor of the trucking company against the trucker. 

[…]

SEN. AL FRANKEN: There were two safety issues here: one, the possibility of freezing to death, or driving with that rig in a very, very—a very dangerous way. Which would you have chosen? Which would you have done, Judge?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his shoes, and I don’t blame him at all, for a moment, for doing what he did do.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: But—but—but—

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I empathize with him entirely.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: OK, just you’ve—we’ve been talking about this case. Don’t—you don’t—you haven’t decided what you would have done? You haven’t thought about, for a second, what you would have done in his case?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Oh, Senator, I thought a lot about this case, because I—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: And what would you have done?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I totally empathize and understand—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I’m asking you a question. Please answer questions.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Senator, I don’t know. I wasn’t in the man’s shoes. But I understand why he did—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: You don’t know what you would have done.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I understand—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: OK, I’ll tell you what I would have done. I would have done exactly what he did.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Yeah, I understand that.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I think everybody here would have done exactly what he did. … It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it. And it makes me—you know, it makes me question your judgment.

He seems nice.  While that case is getting a lot of press, it’s only part of a larger pattern that emerges when you study his past. Corporate America will have a real SCOTUS bud in Neil Gorsuch; because they  can rest assured they won’t lose any more of those $400 handcarts:

Beauty is the beast: The Lure **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 18, 2017)

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As far as retro 1980s New Wave-flavored horror musicals about sexy flesh-eating mermaids go, I suppose you could do worse than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle March 24-26; check your local listings for possible limited engagements in your area). Needless to say…it is not for kids (this is a tale that would make Hans Christian Andersen plotz).

Near as I was able to discern the plot (thin enough to dissolve into sea foam at the slightest suggestion of an impending gale), two sultry sister-sirens are slithering about in the Baltic surf one evening, when they espy a Polish new wave band hanging around on the beach. As we all know, no man, be he a sailor or synth-popper, can resist the clarion call of a sexy Baltic Sea siren.

The band members have no option but to stash the sisters backstage at the strip club they gig at, until they can figure out their next move. Before long, the sleazy house manager discovers them and sees dollar signs. He unceremoniously demands that Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) show him their wares; however he quickly discerns certain elements of the mermaid’s human form to be, shall we say, un-formed…and incompatible with job requirements.

But before the manager can boot the freeloaders out, the band’s lead singer (Kinga Preis) intervenes on the sisters’ behalf. Feeling a maternal tug, she offers to take the young women under her wing, convincing the manager to begrudgingly hire them on as part of the band’s act. Naturally, the lovely sirens beguile the audiences and become an instant hit (A Starfish is Born?).

But alas, every Silver has a cloudy lining. Or in this case, sister Silver has a propensity for being a real man-eater. Literally. For now, Golden’s more feral instincts are being kept in check, because she finds herself falling in love with the bass player (it’s always the goddam bass player). As we’ve learned from many mermaid tales, bassists and mermaids are always star-crossed as lovers.

To label this film as “over the top” is an understatement. I’m not sure what to tell you. If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…this one’s several leagues below (no pun intended). There are a couple of jaunty numbers, and the splashes of bold color are suitably garish in a 80s retro kind of way, but for a film being billed as a “new wave rock musical”, I found the production lackadaisical in both music and choreography departments.

Still, those who lean toward midnight movies might find more to love. With its deadpan performances, 1980s vibe, cheesy horror elements and overall weirdness, I found the film reminiscent of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 punk rock sci-fi horror cult item, Liquid Sky (only in passing; Tskerman’s film is a genuine underground classic). Feel free to jump in at your own risk.

Headed for home: R.I.P. Chuck Berry

By Dennis Hartley

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1926-2017

Neil Young sang: “Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die.” But damn, I think it just did. From today’s New York Times:

While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves. With songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” he gave his listeners more than they knew they were getting from jukebox entertainment.

“Master theorist”? “Conceptual genius”? Pretty heady declarations about a guy who strutted like a duck across the stage, played his guitar like ringin’ a bell, and and sang 4-chord songs about cars and girls.  After all, its only rock ‘n’ roll, and I like it, like it, yes I do…right?

Those declarations are not heady enough, actually.  He was a poet:

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man

“Arrested on charges of unemployment.” That is fucking genius. That’s from “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”. It gets even better:

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a-walkin’ thirty miles en route to Bombay.
To get a brown eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
Back every since the world began
There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear
For a brown eyed handsome man
That’s what the trouble was brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That’s what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man

Two, three count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man

Keep in mind…that song was released in 1956, long before James Brown wrote “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Just sayin’.

As for those Chuck Berry riffs, they may sound simple…but they’re not. Just ask Keith Richards:

Granted, at 90, he was roundin’ third; but now he’s headed for home. And we’ll always have the music; most importantly, the poetry. R.I.P.