Category Archives: Documentary

Size matters not: Big Sonia (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

— Helen Keller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.

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

I saw a film today: A top fab 14 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2017)

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Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films. Happily most of them are now available on home video, so maybe this will give you some stocking stuffer ideas. I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

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The Beatles Anthology-Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessive types, but there is certainly very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary). What makes it somewhat unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator. Nicely done, and a must-see for fans.

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The Compleat Beatles– Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening. It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years– As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.

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A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. The main reason to watch this film is for the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (pretty much the blueprint for MTV). And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds by 1965. It has a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Don’t miss the clever end credits!

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand– This modest sleeper was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later collaborate on bigger box office hits like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the story concerns an eventful “day in the life” of six New Jersey teenagers.

Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much. Regardless, they all end up in a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day that the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue.

Zemeckis overindulges on the door-slamming screwball slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps the story moving along nicely. Allen has a very funny (and very Freudian) scene where she lolls around the Beatles’ hotel suite, taking fetishistic stock of their possessions. The film also benefits from the original Beatles songs (licensing fees must have been a steal before Michael Jackson bought the catalog).

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Let it Be– By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties. Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?

Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.

Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).

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The Magic Christian– The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it to be “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) stumbles upon a young homeless man sleeping in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”), and the rest of the film pretty much follows in that same spirit of spontaneity.

Sir Guy sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad counterculture-fueled satires of the 60s (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a bit of a psychedelic train wreck, but it’s very funny.

Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat full of slaughterhouse offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).

Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

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Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined.

Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.

They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment.  In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.

Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!

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Nowhere Boy– This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood made the toppermost of the poppermost on my list of 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

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Produced by George Martin– While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.

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The Rutles: All You Need is Cash– Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.

Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.

Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.

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That’ll Be the Day– Anyone who ever doubted Ringo Starr’s acting abilities need look no further than this 1973 film, which proved that, if given the right material, he could deliver the goods. Although he is not the protagonist, Starr provides crucial support for David Essex, who stars as a Lennon-esque character (whose journey is continued in Stardust, the 1974 sequel about the rise and fall of a rock star).

Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the British cinema of the 60s. Essex (best-known for his music career, and his 70s hit, “Rock On”) also does a bang-up job here as young Jim MacLaine, a highly intelligent but angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (much to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a fellow carny (Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s British rocker Billy Fury performs some numbers as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the sequel).

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Yellow Submarine– Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” what all the fuss was over the “innovative” animation (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).

But, being the obsessive-compulsive completist that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning. The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.

But he plays one on TV-Bill Nye: Science Guy (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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In a nonsensical world such as ours, it somehow makes perfect sense that it took a Cornell-educated Boeing engineer-turned TV sketch comic-turned-goofy kid’s science show host to become logic’s ultimate champion in the sometimes downright insane public debate among (alleged) adults regarding human-caused global warming.

Such is the long strange trip of Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy”, recounted in a new “warts and all” documentary by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg called (wait for it) Bill Nye: Science Guy. While the filmmakers’ non-linear structure (which vacillates abruptly between eco-doc,  spotty biography and science lesson) takes acclimation, there does seem to be a method to the madness.

Is there “madness” behind Nye’s transition from the bubbly “Science Guy” persona to the relatively more glum-faced crusader we have seen in more recent years taking the science deniers to task? Even the film’s subject himself is unsure of exactly “who” he is at times; as revealed in a fascinating segment where Nye is interviewed by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, who is conducting a study on the effects of celebrity and fame on the brain and the psyche.

She sees in Nye “a great test case” with which to explore her thesis. After admitting that the pressures of fame have made him “close [himself] off” in his public and personal life, Nye becomes palpably (and uncharacteristically) uncomfortable in front of the camera.

As if to further assure us that they are not making a hagiography , the film makers allow some of their subject’s former TV collaborators to dish some passive-aggressive disgruntlement that suggests Nye’s desire for fame and fortune (in the early days, at least) may have trumped any altruistic intentions to bring science to the masses. That said, there are still a number of admirers like Neil deGrasse Tyson on camera to praise Nye and his accomplishments.

My favorite part is where Nye goes to Kentucky for a public debate with anti-evolutionist Ken Ham. Nye first takes us along on a tour of Ham’s Creation Museum, where he finds one particular exhibit suggesting dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the same time to be “very troubling”. Luckily, for viewers like myself who are fully ready at this point to begin hurling objects at the screen, an antidote is administered soon thereafter with a shift back to reality (and sanity) when Nye attends the National Science Teacher’s Conference.

There are also some genuinely touching moments; during a family visit, Nye reveals that his brother and sister struggle with Ataxia, a rare neurological disease that affects balance and gait. While it is a hereditary affliction in his family (his father had it), Nye has never shown any signs to date of having inherited the malady himself. Consequently, he admits to suffering from a kind of “survivor’s guilt”, which has haunted him all of his adult life.

Another chunk is devoted to examining Nye’s current “day job” as CEO of The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by his mentor Carl Sagan (Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 PBS series Cosmos and is the creator-producer-writer of the 2014 sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, also appears throughout the film).

While they may not have crafted a definitive portrait of Nye, the filmmakers do manage to pass on his “Science Guy” persona’s infectious enthusiasm for the joy of discovery. And it did leave me with the comforting thought that he’s one of the good ones who are out there, holding up the line of defense against blind superstition and purposeful disinformation. In light of the current state of our union, we need all the help we can get in that department.

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

Game theory: Trophy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 16, 2017)

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I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.

-from Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun                                         In case of accidents, he always took his mom                                                     He’s the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son                              All the children sing  

 -From “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by Lennon & McCartney

I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve fired a gun on less than ten fingers. I have never had a fascination for them, in any shape or form. And as far as hunting goes, I have taken the life of approximately one animal; albeit reluctantly. I think I was 14 or 15, on a trip with my family to visit some friends of my parents, who had a farm in upstate New York. I somehow got roped into joining a hunting party comprised of my dad, my uncle, and the man who owned the farm. The mission was to rid the property of varmints.

Actually, they were woodchucks, which apparently are considered pests in some quarters. Long story short, I ended up bagging one of the critters with a .22 rifle. I’m sorry to report that I did not eat the meat, nor did I keep the hide and horns. What’s that? Oh, right, woodchucks don’t have horns (although I understand that they chuck wood like nobody’s business). That was enough for me. I felt awful. I suppose on one level, it was a classic rite of passage for an all-American boy (you know…killing something with dad).

In a 2015 TIME Ideas op-ed, author Bartle Bull opens with this observation:

The murder of Cecil, the magnificent Zimbabwean lion, is a vivid but shabby illustration of the dilemma posed by the hunter-conservationist. President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this dilemma. No other American President has ever been as close to nature, or loved it more. No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

The cognitive dissonance is not lost on co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, who kick off their provocative documentary Trophy by similarly naming Roosevelt as the poster child for this dichotomy. The fact that Bull uses his T.R. reference as a foundation for what essentially becomes a partisan defense of the “hunter-conservationist” concept, while Schwarz and Clusiau use theirs to nudge viewers to ponder whether there ever was such a thing as a “hunter-conservationist”…demonstrates why this issue is so polarizing.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Trophy, which is not all about the tragedy of Cecil the lion, or the confounding legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (although they are both mentioned). Nor is the film necessarily designed to make you despise smug trophy hunters, or for that matter to roll your eyes at sign-carrying, self-righteous vegans (although you will witness the worst of both “sides”…all straight out of Central Casting).

What you do get is a fairly evenhanded look at the interactive “industries” of big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and in Africa, and the complications that ensue (legal and existential). Despite what you may expect going in, this is not a cut-and dry, black and white, good vs. evil, morality vs. commerce scenario.

Not that it makes the film an easy watch (although it is visually stunning and beautifully constructed). One particular scene has haunted me for days. An elephant is brought down by a trophy hunter. The camera tracks behind the hunters for what seems to be an eternity as they cautiously approach the dying animal. As it lies on its side, struggling to raise its head while taking its final breaths, it begins to emit what can only be described as the most plaintive, primal, bone-chilling wail of surrender to the void that I have ever heard from any creature great or small. If there is ever a demand for unimpeachable proof of sentience in such creatures, this heartbreaking, funereal sequence should be Exhibit “A”.

No matter where you stand on the issue of big game hunting (or “harvesting”, if you prefer), the sad fact remains many magnificent species are on the brink of extinction; and if it takes an occasional deal with the devil (or the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son) to facilitate their survival, does the end justify the means? The film makers may not offer a pat answer, but provide enough deep background to let you be the judge.

Lazyhazycrazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 12, 2017)

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Since we’ve officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but it’s equally compelling when cameras turn away from the artists and linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t fully come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel). It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Mid-August Lunch-This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorra). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

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Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are seldom mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this all leads to amusing complications.

Love in all of its guises is represented by a bevy of richly-drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

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Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a roller coaster of emotions with an aplomb that belies their age and experience at that stage of their careers. Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

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Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile genre entry.

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A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). So a friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with Rohmer, this is as good a place as any to start.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. But don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry. In fact, even a neophyte should glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will recognize  themselves at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being only human.

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Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”? The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

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3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2017)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Sunday marks the 72nd anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al) Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

Yes, one can always hope. Yet…this happened earlier this week:

There will be war between the United States and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile program if it continues to aim intercontinental ballistic missiles at America, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said President Donald Trump has told him.

“He has told me that. I believe him,” the lawmaker said Tuesday on TODAY. “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”

Graham said that Trump won’t allow the regime of Kim Jong Un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to “hit America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And He has told me that to my face,” Graham said. […]

Graham said military experts are “wrong” that no good options exist.

“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he added.

The senator’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, but hey…I feel safe. You?

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

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

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

I needn’t remind you that 6 months on, Donald J. Trump continues to be President of the United States. Like the scientists said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms. And the Master of 3am Tweets has those nuclear codes. With that happy thought in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go).

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The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need 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 also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films).

One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. In fact, they take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune’s character spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he drew from again 30 years later, in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I only recently caught this 1963 sleeper for the first time, when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere airing several weeks ago (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format), and it really knocked my socks off.  The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be lambasted by some readers for not including the former on this list, but I find it overly melodramatic and vastly overrated). Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), the drama is framed like an actual “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently created a panic for some viewers in Charleston (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives. Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.