Michael Crichton: A Top 5 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 8, 2008)

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I’m sure that you’ve heard the news about Michael Crichton’s passing. The prolific, Harvard-educated MD turned science fiction author/screenwriter/director/producer (and yes, yes, I know…global warming denier…but nobody’s perfect) invented the “techno-thriller” genre. He was the master of the science-gone-amuck/chaos theory narrative, a theme that informed his best books and screenplays. Crichton’s novels have become synonymous with edge of your seat thrills and nail-biting suspense, tempered with detailed and (mostly) plausible science. He also created  the TV drama  ER. He also has an impressive film legacy;  here’s my Top 5 picks:

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Westworld-This 1973 cult favorite marked Crichton’s first foray into film directing, and it shows. But the film has two very strong suits in its favor: Crichton’s taut, sharply written screenplay and Yul Brenner’s memorable performance as a psychotic android gunslinger (the original Terminator!). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin also have an appealing on-screen chemistry, which livens things up (although Benjamin is an odd choice as an action hero). The “amusement park attractions killing the tourists” concept was an obvious warm up for Jurassic Park. Brenner would later reprise his role in the dicey 1976 sequel, Futureworld (watch at your own risk).

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Jurassic Park-Crichton adapted the screenplay from his own original novel (with assistance from David Koepp) for this Steven Spielberg blockbuster. Years of re-watching on the home screen may have diminished the visceral thrill of the cinematic artistry in several key scenes (the unforgettable T. Rex attack in the driving rainstorm, for starters) but this film undeniably remains a groundbreaking affair; thanks to the impressive pool of talent involved. My favorite line: “Must go faster.” Director Spielberg, Crichton and Koepp reunited for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park; while the special effects were impressive, it was a relatively tepid rehash of the previous.

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The Andromeda Strain-What’s the scariest monster of them all? The one you cannot see. This 1971 Robert Wise film is the most faithful Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at alarming speed. With its claustrophobic atmosphere (all the scientists are  trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer.

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The Terminal Man-Paging Dr. Jekyll! George Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks. Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Crichton’s novel.

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Twister-I admit, I went into the theater with low expectations, but this 1996 popcorn adventure about storm chasers tearing through Tornado Alley turned out to be quite the guilty pleasure. Crichton co-scripted with Anne-Marie Martin. The film doesn’t have any threatening reptiles or rogue androids, and the science isn’t as complex as the typical Crichton story, but some of his signature themes are there (the violent unpredictability of a tornado-there’s your “chaos theory” at work). Also, note that the protagonists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) have the same dynamic as Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s scientist couple in Jurassic Park. Action director Jan de Bont (Speed, Lara Croft Tomb Raider) isn’t a very deep filmmaker, but he certainly knows how to deliver a slam-bang cinematic thrill ride.

Also worth a peek: The 13th Warrior, Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun, Looker, Coma.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.

SIFF 2008: Sita Sings the Blues ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2008)

One early audience favorite at this year’s SIFF is  Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip Nina’s Adventures has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip syncing to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative about the travails of a modern NYC couple.

The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawing and rotoscoping. She also utilizes three narrators, who amusingly break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; there is a 3 hour Japanese-Indian production from 1992 called Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet poem, and that this is an 80 minute film obviously taking a Cliff’s Notes approach to its venerable source material, it may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who have no objection to an imaginative deconstruction of such a culturally archetypal tale, Sita Sings the Blues is a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat

Goodbye, Mr. Pollack

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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I’m sure you have heard by now that we lost director-producer-actor Sydney Pollack earlier this week.

He was one of the last of the old school Hollywood filmmakers; a dependable “all purpose” director in the Michael Curtiz vein. From westerns (Jeremiah Johnson, The Scalphunters) and war films (Castle Keep) to love stories (The Way We Were, This Property is Condemned) and sweeping epics (Out of Africa, Havana) Pollack displayed a knack for effortless genre-hopping.

He may not have been an “auteur” or a flashy visual stylist, but he knew how to tell a damn fine story, and he always did so with intelligence and class. He respected his actors; you could glean that from the full-blooded performances that usually informed a Pollack film. Perhaps this was not surprising, as Pollack spent substantial time in front of the cameras as well, usually in supporting roles.

As an actor, he was most recently seen in Michael Clayton (which he also co-produced). He received critical raves for his acting in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (and deservedly so-he more than managed to hold his own opposite the formidable talents of the great Judy Davis). His relatively small role in Eyes Wide Shut was one of the few high points in Stanley Kubrick’s  disappointing final  film.

Perhaps his most endearing turn as an actor was when Pollack the director gave himself a plum supporting role in his gender-bending rom-com Tootsie. Pollack played the exasperated agent of a difficult and mercurial actor (Dustin Hoffman, who some might say was basically playing himself) and got to deliver a now classic line: “I begged you to get some therapy!” While Pollack’s most audience-pleasing film, I don’t necessarily consider Tootsie his best.

Beginning with his 1993 legal thriller The Firm, Pollack’s films began to slouch more toward “product” than artifice (with the exception of his 2005 documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry). All in all, however, he left behind an impressive legacy of well-crafted cinema in his nearly 50 year long career. A few personal recommendations:

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?-This richly decadent allegory about the human condition has to be one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxed the usually wooden Michael Sarrazin (the Hayden Christensen of his day) into showing real emotion.

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The Yakuza-I was happy when this 1975 sleeper finally got released on DVD. Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura are excellent in this complex culture clash/gangster drama. Pollack had major writing talent on board-Robert Towne and Paul Schrader (who scripted from a story idea by Schrader’s brother Leonard).

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Three Days of the Condor-One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films An absolutely first-rate thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at. The film’s final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. The cast includes Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, and John Houseman. Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel adapted from James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor.

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Absence of Malice-Before it was fashionable to take the news media to task, Pollack delivered this solid blend of morality tale and civics lesson about the straight arrow son of a mob figure (Paul Newman) whose reputation is sullied when he becomes the fall guy in an unethical federal prosecutor’s investigation. An over-eager newspaper journalist (Sally Field) is no help, with her tendency to print first, and fact check later. Newman ingeniously turns the tables on the mudslingers, whilst putting the average citizen’s alleged protection under the libel laws to the test. Scripted by ex-reporter Kurt Luedtke, and also featuring wily scene-stealer Wilford Brimley.

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The Swimmer-Technically, this film is not a 100% Pollack project; Frank Perry is the credited director, but Pollack was brought in to finish after Perry dropped out during production. Eleanor Perry scripted from the original John Cheever short story. At any rate, the end product  remains an underrated gem. A searing performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this existential suburban nightmare.

Don’t nobody move: The Bank Job ***1/2 & the top 10 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 12, 2008)

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Looking at recent theater schedules, it appears that the “heist caper” is back (not that it ever went away). As of this writing, there is a Michael Caine and Demi Moore diamond heist flick, Flawless, running  in theaters. Kevin Spacey stars in 21, which concerns an attempt to fleece a Vegas casino. IFC Films has an offering called How to Rob a Bank, which is in limited release and on PPV.

I haven’t had a chance to screen any of the aforementioned, but there is yet another new heist caper I have seen. I’ll admit, I didn’t rush right out to see The Bank Job, for several reasons: 1) The generic title, 2) I usually associate  star Jason Statham with mindless action flicks, and 3) I had never forgiven director Roger Donaldson for spilling Cocktail onto theater floors (he had shown such promise in his early New Zealand days with the astounding Smash Palace).

But I must say, Donaldson has redeemed himself with his new film, based on a high-profile robbery that took place in England in the 1970s. Statham plays a low-level London criminal who is approached by an acquaintance (the lovely Saffron Burrows) with a plan to rob some safe-deposit boxes in a prestigious London bank. Unbeknownst to Statham and his gang, some of the boxes contain sex blackmail material that could potentially unseat several highly-placed members of the British government. To tell you much more would risk spoilers, so we’ll just say many twists and turns ensue.

Regardless as to how much artistic license may have been taken here, Donaldson has fashioned a terrific and surprisingly multi-layered entertainment. In fact, it not only works as a heist caper, it’s an involving political potboiler and espionage thriller as well. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have crafted a script that is pleasingly complex without being needlessly complicated (not an easy balance to strike). The movie is fast paced, but not in the headache-inducing flash cut/jerky cam manner that seems requisite these days; in this respect it hearkens back to a more classic era of movie making.

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With all these heist capers in the multiplexes, I thought I’d share my top 10 favorites. As I always emphasize,  these are my personal favorites, not the “greatest of all time” or the “most influential” (your outrage at my “failure” to include The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, etc. has been duly noted in advance, thank you).

So, in no particular order of preference, here ’tis…

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Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts. The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the  atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris. The surprise is 15 year-old Isabel Corey, an earthy, wise-beyond-her-years nymphet who had never acted before (Melville literally spotted her walking down the street and thought she would be perfect for his film). The deliciously ironic twist of the denouement makes a great kicker.

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Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and supposedly Billy Wilder had a non-credited hand in the script. To be sure, it’s basically an in-jokey vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.

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Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it does spotlight the precise planning and execution of several heists, as well as some genuinely exciting action sequences, the heart of this film is in its character development. Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship these two men have with each other, but takes great pains to show us how they each relate to the significant others in their life. De Niro and Pacino only share one brief scene, but it’s a doozy. There’s able support on hand from Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd. Those who have been anticipating another De Niro/Pacino pair-up will be happy to hear that they will be reunited in Righteous Kill, due out this fall (I saw the previews recently, and surprise surprise, its…a crime film!)

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously manipulating the airport’s own scheduled security lock down for the visit of a controversial foreign dignitary as a distraction. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to buy the blueprints for the bank, he needs to patiently seduce several women and bilk them out of their bank accounts (it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!). Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. Sadly, it’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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Topkapi– Undoubtedly, I will be raked over the coals by some readers for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively light-hearted 1964 caper romp over his much darker and more critically esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for my top 10 list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami? The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an impressive international cast that also includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum. There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery on hand. Vastly entertaining fare.

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The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios  concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together in the same film is  sublime cinematic nirvana. William Rose wrote the script (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to make one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957. I’m afraid the 2004 remake by the Coen brothers was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

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The Anderson Tapes– The great Sidney Lumet directed this nearly forgotten thriller.  Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. It’s one of the first films to ruminate on the  encroachment of electronic monitoring technology into our daily lives and the resulting loss of privacy (The Conversation was still just a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye in 1971). Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (in his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and a typically fabulous Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on top.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so its back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Robert Redford, George Segal, Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmertz ; this underlying subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same delightful young cast members would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and elaborate heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, an opportunistic platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank, secretly stashed with millions of dollars worth of gold bullion. Clint plays it straight, but there’s plenty of anachronistic M*A*S*H style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”. The excellent cast includes Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) performs the memorable theme song “Burning Bridges”.

…And just for fun, my favorite short film/ music video of all time:

ADD theater: Funky Forest

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 29, 2008)

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One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is when we see its separate forms jumbled together.

-Jean Luc Goddard

 A mixed-up mix

Mix up your journey to the next journey

Mixers rock

-DJ Takefumi, from the film Funky Forest: The First Contact

 So, do you think you’ve seen it all? I would venture to say that you haven’t- until you’ve sat through a screening of Funky Forest: The First Contact, originally released in 2005 as Naisu no mori in Japan but now available for the first time on Region 1 DVD.

The film is a collaborative effort by three Japanese directors, most notably Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea). Ishii, along with Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, has concocted a heady “mixed-up-mix”, indeed. There is really no logical way to describe this blend of dancing, slapstick, surrealism, sci-fi, animation, absurdist humor, and experimental film making, married to a hip soundtrack of jazz, dub and house music without sounding like I’m high (perhaps I already sound that way in a lot of my posts…nest ce pas?), but I will do my best.

There is no real central “story” in the traditional sense; the film is more or less a network narrative, featuring recurring characters a la late night TV sketch comedy. Some of these disparate stories and characters do eventually intersect (although in somewhat obtuse fashion). The film is a throwback in some ways to comedy anthologies from the 70s like The Groove Tube, Tunnel Vision and The Kentucky Fried Movie; although be forewarned that the referential comic sensibilities are very Japanese. If a Western replica of this project were produced, it would require collaboration between Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg (and a script from Charlie Kaufman).

Although there are no “stars” of the film, there are quite a few memorable vignettes featuring three oddball siblings, introduced as “The Unpopular With Women Brothers”. The barbed yet affectionate bickering between the hopelessly geeky Katsuichi, the tone-deaf, guitar strumming Masuru (aka “Guitar Brother”) and the pre-pubescent Masao, as they struggle with dissecting the mystery of how to get “chicks” to dig them is reminiscent of the dynamic between the uncle and the two brothers in Napoleon Dynamite and often quite funny. It is never explained why the obese, Snickers-addicted Masao happens to be a Caucasian; but then, the whole concept wouldn’t be so absurdly funny, would it?

The vignettes centering on the relationship between Notti and Takefumi, a platonic couple, come closest to conventional narrative structure. Then there are the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights-influenced trio of giggly “Babbling Hot Springs Vixens”, who tell each other tall stories in three segments entitled “Alien Piko Rico”, “The Big Ginko Tree” and my personal favorite, “Buck Naked and the Panda”.

You will need to clear some time-Funky Forest runs 2½ hours long, in all its challenging, non-linear glory. So is it worth your time? Well, it probably depends on your answer to this age-old question: Does a movie necessarily have to be “about” something to be enjoyable? At one point in the film, Takefumi goes into a soliloquy:

The turntable is the cosmos

A universe in each album

A journey, an adventure

A journey, a true adventure

Journey, adventure

Journey

Needles rock. Needles rock.

Music mixer and the mix

There is another clue on the film’s intermission card, which reads: “End of Side A”. This may be the key to unlocking the “meaning” of this film, which is, there is no meaning. Perhaps life, like the the movie, is best represented by a series of random needle drops. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey (OK, now I think I am stoned.) With a spirit of winking goofiness running throughout all of this weirdness, perhaps the filmmakers are paraphrasing something Mork from Ork once offered about retaining “a bit of mondo bozo”. God knows, it’s helped me get through 52 years on this silly planet.

Blues for Ceausescu: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2008)

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There was a great film that came out four years ago called Maria Full of Grace. The story was a simple narrative about a young, pregnant Columbian woman who hires herself out as a U.S.-bound drug mule in a desperate bid to escape her bleak, poverty-ridden existence. It wasn’t a horror film. It didn’t scream “tension and suspense just ahead!” with ominous musical cues. It was quietly observant and presented with “life-as-it-happens” nonchalance. Yet it was one of the most harrowing nail-biters I have ever squirmed through. However, when I let my breath out at the end of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I realized that Maria just met her match.

Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during  Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.

Gabita is pregnant, and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children.  He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married (he was a real piece of work).

Otilia agrees to help. She secures a hotel room, and makes arrangements with a shady abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Once Gabita, Otilia and Bebe converge, an increasingly nightmarish and heart-pounding scenario proceeds to unfold for the remaining three-quarters of the film.

The most gripping moments occur in the hotel room, particularly a scene where the creepy Bebe forces a reprehensible act of extortion on the two women prior to performing the abortion. If you are squeamish, you may not make it all the way through this portion of the film. The unblinking realism of Mungiu’s vision demands full commitment on part of the viewer; sensitive souls may want to avoid the film altogether. When I say “unblinking”, that’s not code for “exploitative”; there is nothing exploitative or “sexy” going on here.

Mungiu doesn’t proselytize one way or the other about the right-to-life issue; that element is merely incidental to the crux of the film, which is showing us what it’s like to live in mortal fear of one’s own government. It’s the little brush strokes that combine to paint an incisive portrait of an oppressed society. For instance, the simple act of booking a hotel room essentially becomes a white-knuckled interrogation scene; the officiously bureaucratic hotel clerk eyes Otilia suspiciously and demands to know why she and her roommate would need a room when they already live in a dorm. Everyone in this society appears to be afflicted by a chronic sense of paranoia.

This is one of those films that you find yourself thinking about long after the credits roll; the significance of certain scenes doesn’t sink in completely until you have had some time to digest. One such scene for me is when Otilia has to abandon Gabita in the hotel room to attend a dinner (so as to not arouse suspicions). There is a static, 7-minute shot of the dinner table, where Otilia sits center frame, not able to explain the real reason she is not eating (at that point, we have also lost our appetite, after what happened in that hotel room).

She says very little, other than a few perfunctory pleasantries, while the other dinner guests laugh and prattle on about mundane matters, proposing endless toasts and heaping second portions onto their plates (a few stuffy guests dismiss Otilia’s behavior at the table with some passive-aggressive inferences that it must have something to do with her lower-class upbringing). With nary a word of dialogue to utter for several pages of script, actress Anamaria Marinca nonetheless holds your rapt attention for the duration; her facial expressions flagging her inner turmoil and the concern for Gabita back at the hotel. It’s an amazing piece of acting and an inspired gamble by director Mungiu that pays off in spades.

I also have to single out Vlad Ivanov’s intense performance as Bebe. He’s so effectively convincing (and genuinely disturbing) as a quietly menacing, repugnant heavy that it is easy to overlook the fact that it is a quite a turn on the actor’s part and must be commended.

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not exactly be  a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.

Punk is a feeling: The Gits ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2008)

 

Viva Zapata: Mia and her fans, circa 1991.

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP) , a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my  7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana, but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

One of the countless bands that migrated to Seattle during the city’s brief and shining heyday as America’s D.I.Y Mecca was a quartet hailing from Ohio, who called themselves The Gits (in honor of a Monty Python sketch). Led by talented singer-songwriter Mia Zapata, the band mixed the aggressive melodic punch of L.A.’s X with the art-punk lyricism of San Francisco’s Romeo Void. Zapata’s powerful, bluesy Janis Joplin-meets-Exene Cervenka vocal delivery and charismatic stage presence made her a formidable front woman, and the band quickly gained a strong local following.

They also soon gained the attention of local music producers, and were on the verge of being courted by some of the major labels, when it all came crashing to earth with a resounding thud. In the summer of 1993, Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice (thanks to advancements in DNA forensics).

Her frighteningly random and brutal murder not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but at the time, symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance; it was sort of the grunge era’s Altamont, if you will.

In their documentary The Gits (available on DVD), super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane (director) and Jessica Bender (producer) have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of the band and Zapata’s legacy. When O’Kane and Bender were doing initial research for their project, they began snapping up all the Gits memorabilia they could get their hands on, acquiring much of it via eBay, and mostly through one particular seller.

That person turned out to be the band’s drummer, who was beginning to wonder who these two particularly obsessed fans were. This eventually led to full cooperation from the surviving band members, after they were assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalkers.. This was a legitimate concern due to the fact that Zapata’s killer was then still unknown and presumably still at large. Thus began a six year labor of love for the pair.

The first half  is devoted to Gits’ history, beginning with their formation at Antioch College in Ohio in 1986. By the time they moved to Seattle in 1989, the band had developed a sonic sensibility more simpatico with  punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking as an “old school” rock fan, grunge always sounded like warmed-over Blue Cheer or Sabbath to me, while punk was closer to the spirit of The MC5 and The Ramones).

O’Kane does a nice job encapsulating their Seattle years with well-chosen performance clips and archival photos. Interviews with the band, their friends and members of Mia’s family are supplemented by recollections from professional peers like Joan Jett and members of 7 Year Bitch, an all-female Seattle band who were generously mentored by the Gits (and ironically, signed by a major label long before their more musically accomplished mentors were “discovered” themselves). The music business is a harsh mistress.

The second half of the film deals with Zapata’s death. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t exploit the sensationalist aspects of the crime or dwell on all the gory details of the murder itself. Instead, they take the high road and examine the profound effect her loss had on her family, friends, fans and fellow members of the music community.

The sensitive and respectful handling of the latter part of the story ultimately accentuates what lies at the heart of a film that could have been a real downer: an inspiring portrait of a group of close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans. With all the soulless pap oozing from the music charts and Stepford Idol marionettes warbling their glorified karaoke at us from our Empty Vee these days, it’s enough to give one a glimmer of hope that, somewhere out there in the ether, there will always be someone making Music That Matters (I can always dream, can’t I?)

O’Kane even manages to find and highlight one bittersweet “positive” (for want of a better word) that resulted from the tragedy, which was the formation of Home Alive, an anti-violence non-profit organization that is perhaps best described by the mission statement posted on their website:

Home Alive is a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. We believe violence prevention is a community responsibility as well as an individual issue. Our work in self-defense encourages everyone to recognize their entitlement to the basic human right to live free from violence and hate. Our goal is to build a cultural and social movement that puts violence in a context of political, economic and social oppression, and frames safety as a human right.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. Now, if we just could convince the rest of the world to start acting so…punk rock.

The docu-horror picture show: Top 10 Documentaries for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2008)

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Whatever happened to Fay Wray?

In honor of Halloween weekend (we can call it that, when Halloween falls on a Friday, right?), and in a desperate search of a theme for this week’s post (heh), I thought I’d eschew the usual “Top 10 Horror Films” tact in favor of something really scary-real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never really match the thrills, the chills and grotesqueness of, say, reading the newspaper, watching CNN, going online to look at your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for next Tuesday’s election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.

So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 10 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?

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The Atomic Café-Whoopee we’re all gonna die! In a big, scary mushroom cloud. But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this harrowingly funny compilation of U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era, that were originally designed to “educate” the public about how to best “survive” a nuclear attack (all you have to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which generally reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage of shelling from, oh I don’t know… a really big field howitzer. The genius of the film lies in its complete lack of narration (irony speaks louder than words, too). This also gives the film a timeless quality; you could very easily apply its “message” to the current world stage (everything old is new again). It makes a perfect double bill with Dr. Strangelove.

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Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather the pressures of the trial and the media circus that surrounds it.

The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)

The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.

Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.

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The Corporation– While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Cruise-I used to hang out with a co-worker who had a bit of an enigmatic soul. He would pace about his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?

If you can take it, you might want to check out this one-of-a-kind doc that spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses. Levitch’s world view is, um, interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he just another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The full horror of schizophrenia can only be truly known by those who are afflicted, but this rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston comes pretty close to being the next worse thing to actually being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between inspired creativity and mental illness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).

The filmmakers recount a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.

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Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.

Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).

The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The high camp appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation (I think that’s a first for a documentary) ran for 2 years.

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

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

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

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An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. Former VP/Oscar 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 this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties.

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Zoo-In 2005, when the Seattle press originally broke the story of a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses, that alone was disturbing . But when it was revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.

That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this is an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, filmmakers Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede keep a sensitive, neutral tone; it’s not as exploitative as you might assume.