Category Archives: Biopic

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2017

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2017)

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With the year nearly over, ‘tis the season for my roundup of the top 10 feature films out of the 50+ that I reviewed in 2017. Granted, there are several intriguing late December releases that I have yet to see, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, and the biopics I, Tonya and Film Stars Don’t Die in  Liverpool.  However, it appears those films will not be opening in Seattle in time for me to review them in 2017, so what you see here is my “official” top 10 list:

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After the Storm – This elegant family drama from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story. All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when star Hiroshi Abe and scene-stealer Kirin Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be richly rewarded.

Full review

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Bad Black – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Full review

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

Full review

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Blade Runner 2049 – So many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. Star Ryan Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances, and it works. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

Full review

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A Date for Mad Mary –  The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood.

Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Full review

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Endless Poetry – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet.

Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Full review

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I Am Not Your Negro – The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film.

Full review

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Loving Vincent – If I liken Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes…that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I’m only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life. It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a hand-painted, frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature.

The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise. While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is the most visually resplendent one that I’ve seen to date.

Full review

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The Women’s Balcony – A warm, witty and wise Israeli dramedy from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. What begins as a joyous celebration at a small synagogue takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses. This leaves the congregation with no place to worship, and no spiritual leader until their aging rabbi recovers from his resulting nervous breakdown.

Fate delivers an ambitious young rabbi, who quickly ingratiates himself as “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hasty remodeling eschews the open balcony for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services. Soon, the women find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. This coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts, resulting in a truly superb ensemble performance.

Full review

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, 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. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed and I cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

Full review

Blu-ray reissue: Sid and Nancy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Sid and Nancy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer, but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”).

The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins, which is really brought to the fore in Criterion’s 4K restoration. Extras include a 1987 doc on the making of the film, and the “infamous” 1976 Sex Pistols TV interview with Bill Grundy.

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime? Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943. While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg). While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act. Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer). A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

SIFF 2017: Endless Poetry ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Mr. Robot goes to Washington: Snowden ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2016)

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“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  

       -from “1984”, by George Orwell

Reality can be a tough act to follow. As I noted in my 2008 review of the biopic, W:

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish.

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives […] But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Such is the conundrum for Snowden, writer-director Oliver Stone’s new biopic about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices.

The “tough act of follow” is Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour. In 2013, Snowden invited Poitras, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, for a meet at the Hong Kong hotel he was holed up in. This was the culmination of months of email exchanges between Snowden (sending encrypted text under the pseudonym of “Citizenfour”) and Poitras. Poitras found herself in the unique position of being a (circumstantial) “co-conspirator” in the story she was filming. The result was a gripping documentary that played like a paranoia-fueled thriller.

Now we have Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often accused by detractors of infusing his own politically charged, paranoia-fueled conspiracy theories into historical dramas like JFK and Nixon, diving head first into one of the most polarizing public debates of recent years: is Edward Snowden a hero…or a traitor? It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Surely, this should be a perfect impetus for the return of that fearless, rabble-rousing Oliver Stone of old…speaking truth to power through his art, consequences be damned.

This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond even the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society.

In other words, you couldn’t make this shit up, either.

After opening with a cloak-and-dagger vignette set in 2013 on the streets of Hong Kong, Stone flashes back to 2004, where we see a younger, gung-ho Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) humping it through a grueling Special Forces training course. His Army reservist career is cut short after he breaks both legs in an accident. A few years later, still determined to serve his country, he finds a more ideal fit working at the CIA, where his (apparently) sharp computer hacking skills land him a position as an info tech. Stone follows Snowden’s various job relocations, from D.C. to Japan; eventually ending up at the NSA subcontracting firm Booz Allen in Hawaii (where he famously “did the deed”).

Stone alternates between the personal bio, which includes Snowden’s longtime relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and the increasingly furtive interview sessions with Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 by Guardian journalists Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), while Poitras (Melissa Leo) dutifully continues filming. Gordon-Levitt uncannily captures Snowden’s vibe; although by the time credits roll, he remains a cypher. Then again, Snowden has said, “This really isn’t about me […] It’s about our right to dissent.”

Stylistically, the film felt to me like a throwback to cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Defector, Funeral in Berlin, and The Deadly Affair. This may not be by accident; because one of the core themes of the screenplay (adapted by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald from Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus) is that we are, in fact, in the midst of a new “cold war”…in cyberspace.

As Snowden’s (fictional) mentor “Corbin O’Brien” (one of the more interesting creations in the film, especially as played by a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) tells him, “The new battlefield is everywhere.” True that. It’s happening every day, all around us. It used to be a novelty, but it seems like my bank is issuing me a new credit card about every 6 months anymore, due to some nebulous “security breach”. Or how about the “DC Leaks” story…hacktivists with alleged Russian ties breaking into White House accounts at will?

But the question becomes, of course, how much of our privacy should we, as tax-paying citizens, be willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? As Greg Lake once sang:

Knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the  rules                                      The fate of all mankind, I see, is in the hands of fools 

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Stone and Poitras, journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill, and whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, who do not suffer such fools gladly. Big Brother is watching us, but now we feel emboldened to ask: What are you lookin’ at?

Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

The Zen of Yen: Ip Man 3 **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 23, 2016)

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You know what they say-everybody has to start somewhere. Bruce Lee was no exception; he had a mentor, a gentleman known as Ip Man, who was a master in a Shaolin martial arts discipline called Wing Chun. Hong Kong director Wilson Yip’s new film, Ip Man 3, marks his third installment in a franchise dramatizing specific periods of Master Ip’s life.

Donnie Yen (Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey) returns in the eponymous role. The story is set in 1959, which was the year (at least as dramatized in the film…Wiki begs to differ) a young and cocky Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) first approaches Master Ip and expresses his desire to become his disciple. But apparently, he’s just not “fast” enough yet (like I said-everybody has to start somewhere). After this brief interaction in the opening scene, the Bruce Lee character drops from the story (unless I wasn’t paying close enough attention).

Keeping Bruce Lee in the story might have propped things up; otherwise you’re left with a standard genre pic, with Ip Man taking on an ambitious, mobbed-up property developer (Mike Tyson…yes, that Mike Tyson) who has built up a network of surly youth gangs to intimidate, terrorize, and generally soften up the locals so that they will become more pliant. Thankfully, Tyson doesn’t have too many lines; although his call-out challenging Ip Man to go mano a mano (“Lethee who hath the fascist fifths!”) is eminently quotable.

The ensuing vignettes of explosive street violence are interlaced with family melodrama, as Ip Man deals with his wife’s terminal illness. To the director and cast’s credit, these scenes are sensitively handled and genuinely touching at times; but unfortunately the juxtaposition with the action sequences (well-choreographed and entertaining as they are) is jarring. In the end, the soap could render the film as too slippery a slope for action fans.

I got yer top 10 right heah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2015)

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‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2015. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I’ve been able to cover since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every release (that pesky 9-5 gig keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:

Chappie– This is the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). While there are echoes here of nearly every “AI-goes-awry” cautionary tale since Metropolis (plus a large orange soda), through their creation of the eponymous character, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell nonetheless manage to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. Once you’ve cut through all the bombast and the obligatory action tropes in the narrative, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, even timeless kind of resonance. [Full review]

Fassbinder: Love without Demands– By the time he died at age 37 in 1982, the iconoclastic German director-screenwriter-actor (and producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc.) Rainier Werner Fassbinder had churned out 40 feature films, a couple dozen stage plays, 2 major television film series, and an assortment of video productions, radio plays and short films. Mind you, this was over a 15-year period. Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen does an amazing job of tying together the prevalent themes in Fassbinder’s work with the personal and psychological motivations that fueled this indefatigable drive to create, to provoke, and to challenge the status quo. [Full review]

An Italian Name– If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt two subgenres I have dubbed The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures. This breezy 94 minute social satire plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. I was also blissfully unaware that it was first adapted as a 2012 French film, so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. [Full review]

Liza, the Fox Fairy– If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. [Full review]

Love and Mercy– Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Actually, there are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’ n’ roll biopics I’ve seen in years. [Full review]

A Pigeon sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence– Full disclosure…I initially gave this film an appraisal that was ambivalent at best. But as I have said in the past, I reserve the right to occasionally change my mind; and since I’ve had some time now to sit on my branch and reflect, I’ve decided it belongs on this list. That doesn’t mean that I’m any closer to understanding what the fuck this movie is “about” any more so than previous. How do I summarize a film cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes sharing little in common save for the fact that they share little in common…why bother? [Full review]

Song of the Sea– Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells with another lovely animated take on Irish folklore, this one steeped in “selkie” mythology. Moore has fashioned a family-friendly entertainment that feels like an instant classic; imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernable warmth in Moore’s skilled use of hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days. [Full review]

Tangerines– This Estonian-Georgian production was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, who  sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 90s. While there are touchstones like La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, the film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  [Full review]

Trumbo– One could draw many historical parallels with the present from this fact-based drama by director Jay Roach, which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms). Bryan Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era Hunter S. Thompson. While not as emotionally resonant as the thematically similar 1976 film The Front, Trumbo happily shares a like purpose, by providing something we need right now…a Rocky for liberals. [Full review]

When Marnie Was There– 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 anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It’s 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. [Full review]

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything