Category Archives: Art world

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral. Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

Love & Death in the 21st Century: Honeyglue **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2016)

And maybe love is just letting people be just what they want to be               The door must always be left unlocked

 -from “What is Love”, written by Howard Jones

In the opening of writer-director James Bird’s melodrama Honeyglue, an attractive, gender-fluid young man breaks the ice with an attractive young woman on a dance floor with an original pickup line: “What are you?” To which the young woman replies, “What do you mean, what am I?” The young man counters with “Are you a dragonfly?” “I look like an insect?” she asks, not sure whether she’s being pranked. “Like a dragonfly,” he answers with a smile. Then she turns the tables. “Are you a guy?” she asks. “As opposed to what?” the young man answers with a defensive tone. “As opposed to a girl,” she says. “What do you prefer I be?” he asks. “I mean…are you gay?” she asks this time, hastily  adding  “It’s OK if you are”  as an afterthought. “You ask a lot of questions,” he says, then stalks away into the crowd.

And if you’re thinking that marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship (with benefits), you would be correct (and/or you’ve seen one or two formula mumble core indie flicks). That is not to suggest that Honeyglue is a wholly unoriginal film; as far as formula mumble core indie flicks go, you could do a lot worse. And once you toss a few venerable Disease of the Week Hollywood clichés to the mix, you at least get an interesting hybrid.

The most compelling element of the film is the two romantic leads. Adriana Mather gives a resonant and touching performance as Morgan, a suburban princess who falls in love with streetwise club kid Jordan (Zach Villa, also quite good). Unfortunately, the work by the remainder of the cast is wildly uneven. In fact, one performance is so downright godawful that it becomes a distraction; however as I see that this (hitherto unfamiliar to me) thespian has 99 credits listed on IMDB and is “an award-winning Canadian actor”, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that it could be chalked up to miscasting.

Still, despite the screenplay’s clumsy mashup of Now, Voyager with The Crying Game, occasional forays into Love Story-worthy mawkishness and tendency to have its characters spout Hallmark Card platitudes at each other, there remains a stubborn streak of sincerity and goodwill (bolstered by the earnestness of the two young leads), just palpable enough to keep sentimental souls (honey) glued right through to its inevitable four-hanky denouement. And arriving as it does in theaters literally right on the heels of the recent evil mayhem in Orlando, the film’s core message, that Love (gender-defying or otherwise) trumps not only Hate, but perhaps even Death itself, could not be any timelier.

SIFF 2016: Uncle Howard **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

Maybe I’m jaded from having seen one too many documentaries about the NYC arts scene; from the people (the Beats, Warhol’s Factory alums, the Velvets, Patti Smith, the punks, Mapplethorpe, Haring, Basquiat, the Club Kids, etc.) to the haunts (SoHo, TriBeBa, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB’s, Studio 54, etc.) it’s all been pretty well strip mined by filmmakers. Perhaps that explains why we’re now reduced to a documentary, about a documentarian, who once made a documentary about William Burroughs. If you’re stuck for an angle…go meta (a credo that frequently saves my ass). Still, this heartfelt tribute to Burroughs: The Movie director Howard Brookner (who died of AIDS in 1989), by his nephew Aaron Brookner is not wholly unwatchable, and ultimately quite moving.

MoMA and dada: The Theory of Obscurity ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 12, 2016)

I once unintentionally attended a Residents gig, at a club in San Francisco, circa 1980. Technically, they weren’t really there. They were “appearing” via (mesmerizingly weird) videos. The videos were being looped, concurrently on several monitors, in a small room isolated from the main stage. This presentation functioned as a sort of passive “supporting band” for the act I was there to see, Snakefinger. Then again, as defined in a documentary called The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) they’re not a “band”…so much as they are an ongoing art installation. So in that context, I’ll state unequivocally that I saw The Residents (you had to be there, man!).

“The Residents Ultimate Box Set” (Museum of Modern Art)

Director Don Hardy Jr. has taken on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career, but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery). As I inferred earlier, can you even call them a “band” with a straight face? Or are they more of an “art collective”? Or are they just elaborate pranksters? One thing that does become clear as you watch the film, is they are all of the above, and more.

Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word. Considering that they have over sixty albums to their credit, Hardy obviously can’t annotate their full discography in a 90-minute film, but he does spotlight some of their more seminal efforts, like The Third Reich’n’Roll (best album title ever) and the ironically entitled Commercial Album (40 delightfully dada 1-minute songs, which the band actually rotated as a 60 second spot flight on San Francisco Top 40 station KFRC in 1980…talk about a meta ad campaign!).

On a purely conceptual level (as pointed out in the film) The Residents could be seen as the antithesis of the Kardashians; whereas the latter are the poster children for those who are “famous for being famous”, the former are “famous” for shunning (and mocking) the Cult of Celebrity at every turn. Yet (paradoxically) they are lauded as innovative multimedia artists (Hardy shows how serendipity led these “failed filmmakers” into becoming a band, who then by necessity stumbled into becoming music video pioneers).

The Residents have also been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them.

The key in the sunlight: Heart of a Dog ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2015)

I love Laurie Anderson’s voice. In fact, it was love at first sound, from the moment I heard “O Superman” wafting from my FM radio late one night back in the early 1980s:

And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

 ‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.

 Hi Mom!

And so it goes, eight minutes of stream of consciousness/minimalist electro pop bliss, vaguely apocalyptic, yet oddly endearing. It was The Voice…at once maternal, sisterly, wise, reassuring, confiding, lilting, impish. Hell, she could read the nutritional label on a box of corn flakes out loud…and to me it would sound artful, thoughtful, mesmerizing.

“That” wondrous voice can be heard all over the soundtrack of a new film by its owner called Heart of a Dog (in limited release and likely to be coming soon to an HBO near you). “Mom” is a recurring theme here as well. As is the dog of the title, a beloved rat terrier named Lolabelle. Sadly, Mom and Lolabelle’s appearances are posthumous. The spirit of her late husband Lou Reed is present too; never directly mentioned, but palpable. You could say that Death is Anderson’s co-pilot on this journey to the center of her mind. But it’s not a sad journey. It’s melancholy at times, deeply reflective, but it’s never sad.

It’s hard to describe the film; I’m struggling mightily not to pull out the good old reliable “visual tone poem”. (Moment of awkward silence). Okay, I blinked first…it’s a visual tone poem, alright? Even Anderson herself is a somewhat spectral presence in her own movie, which (like the artist herself), is an impressionistic mixed media mélange of drawings, animations, video, and even vintage super 8 family movies from her childhood.

It’s probably just me (it usually is; I live alone) but I see parallels with Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, which was likewise prompted by the death of his mother. Like Ginsberg’s poem, Anderson’s film is a free-associative collage of childhood memory, Buddhist philosophy, ruminations on life, death, art, and grief therapy. Unlike Ginsberg’s poem, however, Anderson includes footage of her dog playing piano. What more do you want?

Bonus track!

The art of storytelling: When Marnie Was There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2015)

Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful new anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The story (adapted from a book by the late British author and illustrator Joan G. Robinson) centers on a 12 year-old girl named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled Japanese version that this review is based upon). Anna, a budding artist, is an insular foster child whose health problems precipitate an extended visit to a seaside town, where she will stay with relatives while she mends. While exploring her new environs one day, she espies a rundown mansion at the edge of a marsh. She finds herself strangely drawn to the place, but doesn’t understand why. Unwittingly stranding herself there when the tide rises, she is rescued by a crusty (yet benign) fisherman. As night begins to fall, she thinks she sees lights in the windows of the abandoned structure. A mystery is afoot.

I don’t want to give anything away, as many twists and turns ensue, with a 4-handkerchief denouement that will leave only those with a heart of stone unmoved. It’s really a lovely story, with some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve seen from Ghibli. Gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling.

Draw this pirate: Art and Craft ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)

It’s an age-old question: Who gets to call it “art”? Andy Warhol paints a replica of a Campbell soup can, signs his name to it (with no credit to the designer who originally created it), and it’s “art”, as opposed to “plagiarism”? Eye of the beholder, and all that, I’d reckon. Art and Craft, a documentary from directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, adds a new spin to the question: Does someone talented enough to reproduce classic works of art that are so indistinguishable from originals that even professional registrars are duped deserve to be called an “artist”? And if that said individual is donating the work, is it still “forgery”? After all…as Jonathan Richman once sang, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.”

Such is the strange case of mild-mannered savant Mark Landis, who has the dubious distinction of being considered the most prolific forger in art history. Amazingly, Landis was able to keep his secret safe for 30 years, during which time he took on the role of a “philanthropist”, crisscrossing the country to donate his uncanny reproductions to unsuspecting galleries and museums. The breadth of the works is genuinely astonishing; covering the full spectrum from Charles Shultz to Picasso. His streak ended when Matthew Leininger, one of the registrars he had initially duped, caught on to Landis’ con.

The film is ultimately a fascinating portrait of two obsessive individuals; each one operating within a gray area. While there are certainly ethical issues that can be raised regarding what Landis does, there is nothing technically illegal about donating objects d’art. Besides, as one art expert conjectures in the film, who is to say that what Landis does isn’t a kind of “performance art” in and of itself?

In that respect, one could argue he is free to go about his business, as long as he isn’t hurting anybody (save the wounded pride of a few museum curators). Likewise, while it could be argued that Leininger (at least as observed in the film) is exhibiting classic characteristics of stalking behavior, there’s no law against him going on his one-man crusade across the country to alert any museums and galleries that he suspects may have Landis’ work in their collections.

Anyone already aware of the art world’s inherently schizoid nature will probably not be too surprised by the film’s most enlightening segment, which takes place at a gallery that has offered Landis his own show. The only original in the installation is a portrait Landis painted of his late mother; the rest are his reproductions. Several attendees ask Landis the obvious question, “You’re so talented…why don’t you do your own work?” The soft-spoken (and heavily medicated) Landis responds to such queries with enigmatic shrugs.

Someone else has shown up as well…Leininger (luckily, with his wife, who can be seen pulling him back several times when he looks for all intents and purposes like he’s seriously considering grabbing Landis and killing him with his bare hands). Inevitably, there is a brief (and obviously awkward) conversation between the two. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been reading any of your emails, because I figured they would just be bad news,” Landis tells Leininger, “but if you want to send me any new emails, I’ll read them, because we’re all friends now,” and offers Leininger his hand. Leininger shakes, but still looks like he wants to strangle Landis. Everybody’s a critic, I suppose…

Vermeer to eternity: The Monuments Men ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2014)

Saviors of the lost art: Clooney & co. in The Monuments Men

My late Uncle Irv was an even-keeled man; kindhearted, easy going, and always up for a good laugh over coffee and a bagel. In all the years I knew him (from childhood until I was well into my 40s), I have no particular memories of ever seeing him angry or vitriolic. Except for one occasion. A few years before he passed, he took me aside and showed me something that he had hitherto never shared-his modest collection of personal WW2 memorabilia. I knew that he had flown some bombing missions over Germany as a navigator on a B-17; but I had never pressed him for details, and he was never one to prattle on about his war experiences. He was showing me the weathered photographs, uniform patches, mission plans and such, when he suddenly paused, got this steely look in his eye, and quietly hissed, “Those fuckin’ Nazis.” It was so out-of-the-blue and out-of-character that it took me aback for a moment. But I got it. He and I lost  mutual relatives in the concentration camps. I totally got it.

And when it comes to war movies, we all totally “get it” why the Nazis are depicted as the ultimate villains. Because, well, they were. Are. Will likely remain…until the end of recorded time. And you would think that by now, Hollywood would have collated and dramatized all the characteristic traits that have led to a general consensus among decent human beings that the Third Reich was, overall, a terrible idea. Believe it not, however, there are yet additional historically documented reasons why the Nazis are the ultimate villains (as if the mass genocide, the incursions and the wanton destruction wasn’t enough). Specifically, they looted. And they hoarded. Big time. Especially when it came to Europe’s treasure trove of great art. Toward the end of the war, thanks to Hitler’s scorched earth directives, countless sculptures and paintings by (then) contemporary artists (like Picasso) were destroyed for not being “collectible” enough (Worst. Art. Critics. Ever.) Luckily, there was a U.S. Cavalry (of sorts) that rode in and saved the day.

The story of this little-known mission to literally rescue Europe’s plundered art and then return it to its rightful owners has been dramatized in a new film called The Monuments Men. Directed by George Clooney, with a script he adapted with his creative partner Grant Heslov from a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the story takes place during the waning days of the war as the Allies close in on Germany from all fronts. Clooney casts himself as museum curator Frank Stokes, assigned by FDR to hand-pick a team of qualified experts to take a crash-course in basic training and then head to the front with two directives: 1) Advise the advancing Allies about known locations containing renowned art so it is not inadvertently destroyed, and 2) Use whatever intelligence they can to pinpoint the Nazi stashes. The resultant platoon of not-quite-ready-for-combat players is like The Dirty Dozen…with art degrees.

Initially, while I was watching the obligatory “We’re getting the band back together!” montage, I thought “Please, don’t let this be an in-jokey ancillary to the Ocean’s Eleven franchise” (especially when I noted that Matt Damon was on board) but those fears were dissipated as I got pulled into the story. In fact, Clooney and Heslov have fashioned a highly entertaining old-school WW2 adventure yarn, in the tradition of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone. Granted, you’re not going to see this team of art historians and professors scaling cliffs and blowing stuff up real good, but this is nonetheless an absorbing tale of courage and personal sacrifice, topped off by a fine ensemble including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville (channeling Jack Hawkins). Look for a cameo by Clooney’s dad Nick. Alexandre Desplat’s rousing score keeps things rolling along.

It’s refreshing to see a WW2 angle that hasn’t been done to death. The only previous example I can think of is John Frankenheimer’s  1964 drama The Train (also set in 1944, it stars Burt Lancaster as a railroad stationmaster recruited by the French Resistance to prevent a trainload of stolen French masterpieces from reaching Germany). It’s also refreshing to see a true rarity these days: an unabashedly patriotic “rah-rah for the good guys” war movie that doesn’t ultimately involve Navy Seals blowing someone’s shit away.

When someone is trying to take over the world (pretty much Hitler’s goal), there are many things at stake. The preservation of innocent lives, of course is paramount, and the preservation of freedom. But the preservation of culture is crucial as well. As Clooney’s character says in the film “[Art] is our history. It is not to be stolen or destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.” And worth fighting and dying for? I’ll bet if my Uncle Irv was here, he would say, “Yes.”

A brush with destiny: The Painting **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

Do you remember that classic Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon, “Duck Amuck”? It’s the one where an increasingly discombobulated Daffy Duck punches through the Fourth Wall, alternately berating, bargaining and pleading with his omniscient animator, who keeps altering Daffy’s “reality” with pencils, erasers, pens, ink, brushes and watercolors. It’s a delightfully surreal piece of Looney Tunes existentialism. A new feature-length animated film from France called The Painting (aka Le Tableau) takes a similar tact, albeit with less comic flair. Rather, writer-director Jean-Francois Laguionie and co-writer Anik Leray strive to deliver a gentle parable about racial tolerance meets “Art History 101”; easy to digest for kids 8 and up and adults from mildly buzzed to 420.

The story takes place in an unnamed kingdom that exists within an unfinished painting (don’t worry, not a spoiler) that is divided into a three-tiered caste system, ruled by the fully fleshed-out and colorful Alldunns. They look down on the Halfies, characters that The Painter hasn’t quite “filled in” all the way (Does God use an easel? Discuss.). Everybody looks down on the poor Sketchies, ephemeral charcoal line figures exiled to skulk about within the confines of a “forbidden” forest (you can already see where this is going, can’t you?). A Halfie named Claire falls in love with a Montague, oops, I mean, an Alldunn named Ramo. Roundly chastised for her forbidden passion, the despairing Claire runs away and disappears into the forest. Ramo and Claire’s best friend Lola set off in search.

After the three are reunited, they inadvertently stumble out of the frame into the artist’s studio, where they find a bevy of unfinished paintings. Surreal adventures ensue, as the trio explores the worlds that exist within each of the paintings, ultimately leading them to seek the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything by setting off on a quest to “meet their maker” so they can ask him “WTF?”

While the prevalent use of muted pastels lends the visuals a slightly warmer feel than most computer animation (of which I have never been a huge fan, mostly due to that “uncanny valley” vibe that frankly creeps me out) and several lovely sequences that make for pleasant eye candy, there was still something about the characters that left me a little cold. Another problem is that despite an intriguing premise, many elements of the narrative feel like an uninspired rehash of similar (and far more imaginative) “who made who?” fantasies like The Truman Show, Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo. And the “message” is about as subtle as the classic Star Trek  episode about a perpetual civil war between two factions of “halfie” black & white striped aliens who are reverse mirror images of each other. Still, the younger viewers may be more forgiving.

Fellini is spinning: The Great Beauty **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2013)

It doesn’t take long for the Fellini influences to burble to the surface in Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (“The Great Beauty”). The viewer is immediately thrown into the midst of a huge, frenetic birthday party in honor of 65 year-old writer Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), and we are definitely freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball with some of the more oddly-featured and garishly-attired denizens of Rome’s upper-crust literati. Although many decades have passed since the singular success of his sole novel, Jeb has ingratiated himself into Rome’s high society over the ensuing years as a glib arts critic, serial womanizer and entertaining gadfly at parties (when accused of being a misogynist, Jep retorts that he is much more open-minded…he prefers to be addressed as a misanthrope).

However, Jeb’s ebullient birthday mood is about to get quashed. When an old acquaintance he has long lost touch with (and who ended up marrying Jep’s teenage sweet heart) contacts him out of the blue to share the news that his wife has died, Jep has an unexpected reaction, triggering a deep malaise. He begins to take stock of the self-indulgent pursuits that he and fellow members of Rome’s idle class indulge in to distract themselves from the shallowness of their lives. The ensuing existential travelogue snaking through Italy’s ever-cinematic capital begs comparisons with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, as well as Antonioni’s La Notte, another drama about a Rome-based writer in crisis.

While beautifully photographed and cannily evocative of a certain surreal, free-associative style of film-making that flourished in the 1960s (even if the narrative is set in contemporary Bunga Bunga Rome), Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag  long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.