Category Archives: Documentary

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the  kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenants regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Germans and Jews ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Can’t we all just get along? If you’re talking Jews and Germans, even in the context of here and now in a modern, (very) democratic Germany…it’s complicated. This documentary was the brainchild of NYC-based (non-Jewish) director Janina Quint, who grew up in Germany, and her friend, producer Tal Recanati, who was born in the US, but spent some formative years in Israel. The result is a fascinating study about collective guilt, forgiveness, sins of the fathers and sociopolitical backlash. Don’t expect pat answers; on one hand, it’s been over 70 years since WW2 ended…on the other hand, it’s only been 70-some years since WW2 ended (if you know what I’m saying). And yes, there are discomfiting moments, but this film is timely and thought-provoking.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2017)

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But alas, it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or at construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is largely on the money whenever he interjects contemporary images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, at the end of the day they were produced by white liberals, to be exclusively consumed by other white liberals, who could then pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (unless I was reading him wrong). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a bit of a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top of my review that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it another retread “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although its history is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin was not an active participant in the literal sense (which he admits in some excerpts), yet he was wholly present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator.

And indeed it is these insights and observations that stay with you after the lights come up. In a way it makes me sad that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate, because it serves to remind that while we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never really went away. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Michael and me in Trumpland

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2016)

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Growing up as a military brat is not easy. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

And so it was, back in the summer of 1968, that my dad received a reassignment from Ft. Wainwright, Alaska (where we had been stationed for 4 ½ years) to Clinton County Air Force Base, Ohio (yes, he was in the Army, but certain Army units were attached there…I could explain why, but if I did, I would then unfortunately have to kill you, and I am a man of peace). Now, understand that Fort Wainwright was a sizable installation; and my family lived on-base. Living in the “family quarters” of a large army base is analogous to living in a dense metropolitan environment. Nobody is “from” the locality where you all happen to be thrown together; consequently there’s a rich diversity in a concentrated area…social, racial, religious, and cultural.

Not so much in the sleepy hamlet of Sabina (also known as “The Eden of Ohio”), which is where my family ended up living “off-base” from 1968-1969. The 2010 census counted 2,564 souls, of which 97.0% were white, 0.9% African American, 0.3% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.07% from other races, and 1.12% from one or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.15% of the population. I don’t have the town’s ethnic breakdown for 1968, but between my memories and my suspicions, those ratios likely have not deviated much since Sabina was founded in 1830.

You’re probably getting the picture here that Sabina’s populace is the opposite of “diversity”. There is also a tendency (I have found) in your smaller burgs, in your more rural areas, for the locals to be less than welcoming to “outsiders” and somewhat clannish (and since we are talking about Ohio, you could spell that with a “k” and not be historically inaccurate). Now, before y’all get riled up and start to accuse yours truly of “flyover state” stereotyping, or painting with broad strokes (sins of the fathers, and all that), let me say that I am sure 99.9% of the folks currently living in beautiful Sabina, Ohio are good-hearted people…and fine, upstanding citizens.

However, my own personal interactions with some Sabina locals, specifically from autumn of 1968 through late summer of 1969, do not exactly make for pleasant memories. In fact, my 7th grade year was a living fucking hell. Now, I realize that nearly anybody you would care to ask has an anecdote or two about getting “picked on” at school while they were growing up; the law of averages guarantees that you will be bullied at some point in your 12 years of public schooling.

But what I’m talking about here isn’t an isolated incident or two. What I’m talking about is unrelenting harassment, verbal and physical. What I’m talking about is being informed that “we’re going to be waiting for you after school to kick your ass” on a daily basis. I’d been bullied before, but there was an added element to the intimidation unique to my Sabina experience. This was the first (but unfortunately, not the last) time someone ever called me a “kike” while pushing me around. I managed to keep most of this from my folks, until the day one of these bushwhacking yahoos sat behind me on the bus and boxed my ears so hard I had to see a doctor.

Good times.

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So what does my personal memoir of woe have to do with this week’s film review?  Well, as fate would have it, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, filmmaker Michael Moore has intuited the Clinton County seat of Wilmington as the perfect microcosm of what he calls “Trumpland” (Wilmington is only about ten miles from my old “stomping” grounds in Sabina).

Michael Moore in Trumpland (***) was an “October surprise” of sorts; sprung by Moore on an unsuspecting public with no advance hype. The high-concept title of this 73-minute film, (documenting a “one night only” performance piece by Moore) says it all…whether you are a fan or a hater-you know this is going to be a “fish-out-of-water” narrative, layered with irony. First, there’s the venue, the historic Murphy Theater. It’s prime benefactor? Glenn Beck (it burns!). And Moore takes pains to point out he’s in Clinton County, which is antipodal to Clinton country.

Aside from an opening montage featuring locals parroting Breitbart memes and reinforcing the more cartoonish stereotypes of the “typical” Trump voter, Moore suppresses any further urges to shoot fish in a barrel. In fact, Moore telegraphed his good intentions not only by making his show admission-free, but requested that “Trump Voters Welcome” be added to the theater’s marquee.

After taking a “show of hands” census to establish how many in the audience support Hillary, how many support Trump, and who is undecided or supporting independent candidates, it appears that he is dealing with a fairly balanced mix. Employing his trademark mix of entertaining shtick and genuine empathy, Moore attempts to build rapport with the Trump supporters, and really seems to get inside their heads. At least for the first 30 minutes…then, he pulls a bait-and-switch.

It’s subtle. After disarmingly confiding he’s never voted for either Clinton, he mentions the chapter “My Forbidden Love for Hillary” from “Downsize This!” to segue into…his forbidden love for Hillary. By the time he’s finished with what morphs into an impassioned summation of the humanity that’s always driven her dedication to public service, obscured and weather-beaten as it may be from enduring years of anti-Hillary vitriol and character assassination, there’s nary a dry eye in the house…Trump supporters included. It is a master class in rhetorical showmanship.

While my description of that rhapsodic interlude could indicate otherwise, the film is not a Hillary hagiography. For example, Moore makes no bones about his disappointment regarding some of Hillary’s voting decisions while she was serving in the Senate; and he promises to hold her feet to the fire on her campaign promises if she wins. But he also waxes hopeful; launching into a speculative Utopian reverie on how things will be once Hillary becomes POTUS (*sigh*).

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what I say about Moore’s film…give it time. And here’s a stock tip: go long on pitchforks.

#  #  #

BTW here’s a great government website that might not be here after January 20. Better cache it.

Blu-ray reissue: Eight Days a Week ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – Apple Deluxe Edition Blu-ray

I missed the theatrical run of Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles documentary because I was sidelined by knee replacement surgery, but happily the powers-that-be have expedited its release to home video just in time for Christmas. As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Howard’s 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) by what he’s managed to put together here.

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, Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun. The Deluxe Edition is worth the investment for fans; in fact, I found the bonus features more interesting than the main film! The 64-page booklet caps this set off nicely.

 

Better poke him to make sure: Revisiting Cuba on film

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2016)

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Time, he’s waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, boys

-from “Time” by David Bowie

So the dictator who once inspired a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro was finally taken out by time-honored method #639: Patience. Whether you are happy, sad or ambivalent regarding the passing of Fidel Castro, it’s inarguable that it’s been a long, strange trip for U.S.-Cuban relations since the Teflon strongman seized power in 1959.

In light of this development, I’m re-running a post that was originally inspired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to the island-nation in October of last year:

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

UPDATE [11-28-16]  #

I’m not the only one with Fidel on the brain…I received a flurry of emails from readers, who offer these excellent recommendations:

h/t to Michael I., Douglas W., Michael H., Carl C.,  & Timothy S.

Iggy Popcorn: Gimme Danger *** & Danny Says **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2016)

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Well it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA

It’s another year for me and you

Another year with nuthin’ to do,

Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun

And now I’m gonna be 22

I say oh my, and a boo-hoo

-from “1969” by The Stooges

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch dutifully traces the history of Iggy and the Stooges, from Iggy’s initial foray as a drummer, to the Stooges’ 1967 debut (then billing themselves as “The Psychedelic Stooges”), to their signing with Elektra Records the following year (which yielded two seminal proto-punk albums before the label unceremoniously dropped them in 1971) to the association with David Bowie that gave birth to 1973’s Raw Power, up to the present.

While LP sales were less than stellar (and forget about radio exposure, outside of free-form and underground FM formats), the band’s legend was largely built on their gigs. From day one, Iggy was a live wire on stage; unpredictable, dangerous, possessed. Whether smearing peanut butter (or blood) on his chest while growling out songs, undulating his weirdly flexible body into gymnastic contortions, or impulsively flinging himself into the crowd (he invented the “stage dive”), Iggy Pop was anything but boring.

Keep in mind, this was a decade before Sid Vicious was to engage in similar stage antics. The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering in the air when the Stooges stormed onstage, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies. However, once they hitched their wagon to fellow Detroit music rebels/agitprop pioneers the MC5 (their manifesto: “Loud rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets!”) they began to build a solid fan base, which became rabid. Unfortunately, film footage from this period is scant; but Jarmusch manages to dig up enough clips to give us a rough idea of what the vibe was at the time.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor). While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

Many might assume, judging purely by the simple riffs, minimal lyrics and primal stage persona that there wouldn’t be much going on upstairs with the Ig…but that would be a highly inaccurate assumption. To the contrary, Iggy is much smarter than you think he is; a surprisingly erudite raconteur who is highly self-aware and actually quite thoughtful when it comes to his art. It might surprise you to learn that one of his earliest creative influences (aside from space-jazz maestro Sun Ra and, erm, Soupy Sales) was American avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who utilized instruments made out of found objects.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this truly influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. As for the rest of you, I say: Oh my, and a boo hoo!

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Interestingly, Iggy pops up in another new documentary. In fact, there is much cross-pollination between Gimme Danger and Danny Says (on PPV), Brendan Toller’s uneven yet quaffable portrait of NYC scenester/music publicist/DJ/fanzine editor Danny Fields.

Fields was the talent scout/A&R guy/whatever (his job title is never made 100% clear…more on that in a moment) who “discovered” The Stooges while on assignment from Elektra Records to scope out the Detroit music scene in 1968. While the record company was primarily interested in the MC5, Fields convinced the suits to tack the Stooges on as a “two-fer” signing deal: $20,000 for the MC5 + $5,000 for the Stooges (!)

That’s jumping a bit ahead in Fields’ involvement with the music biz, which appears (according to Toller’s film) to have been attributable to a series of happy accidents, which begins with him falling into a managing editor position with the teenybopper fanzine Datebook in 1966. Within months of landing the gig, Fields found himself at the center of the infamous John Lennon “bigger than Jesus” controversy, stemming from a highlighted quote in a Datebook interview (his editorial decision). The consequences? Death threats against the band, Beatle record bonfires in the Deep South, universal condemnation by church leaders…essentially putting the kibosh on touring for the Fabs.

Whoops. I think we all owe Yoko an apology.

Thanks to his music journalist cred, he soon gains entree with the Warhol Factory crowd, which leads to his association with The Velvet Underground and a long-time friendship with Lou Reed, Nico, et al. This essentially plants him perennially thereafter at the epicenter of the New York arts scene, where, like a rock ‘n’ roll Forrest Gump, he manages to pal around with everybody who’s anybody from the late 60s ‘til now. He did publicity for The Doors, “discovered” and co-managed The Ramones, did windows, etc.

So why haven’t most people on the planet heard of him? I like to think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll geek, with an encyclopedic brain full of worthless music trivia…and even I was blissfully unaware of this person until I stumbled across the film on cable the other night. So I am going to have to take all of the gushing interviewees’ word for it that Fields was a “punk pioneer” and essentially the musical taste-maker of the last 5 decades.

Fields proves a raconteur of sorts (the one about a meeting he arranged between Jim Morrison and Nico is amusing) but many anecdotes lead nowhere. For someone allegedly at the vanguard of the music scene for 50 years, he offers little insight. Most of Fields’ reminiscences are variations on “Well, I thought these guys were kinda cute, and I liked their music, so I told so-and-so about them, then I introduced these guys to some other famous guys.” For the most part, it adds up to 104 minutes of glorified name-dropping.

Still, the film is perfectly serviceable as a loose historical chronicle of the NYC music scene during its richest period (via numerous snippets of archival footage), and nostalgic boomers will likely find cameos by the likes of Alice Cooper, Judy Collins, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Jonathan Richman, Iggy Pop, etc. to be enough to hold their interest (although again, more context and/or insight would have sweetened the pot).

The film reminded me of another rock documentary, George Hickenlooper’s The Mayor of Sunset Strip (my review), which profiled L.A. scenester/club manager/DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who, like Danny Fields, managed to stumble into the midst of every major music sea change from the 1960s onward, rubbing shoulders with any rock ‘n’ roll luminary you’d care to name. Which begs the same question regarding Fields that I posed of Bingenheimer: Is he a true music “impresario”, or merely a lottery-winning super fan?

The man behind the ears: For the Love of Spock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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Even the unflappable Mr. Spock himself (had he actually existed) might have arched an eyebrow at the prodigious outpouring of sentiment surrounding the passing of “his” alter-ego Leonard Nimoy last year. That, coupled with recent TV marathons and associated hoopla marking the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, makes Adam Nimoy’s heartfelt documentary about his father all the more timely (and touching). While careful to compartmentalize Leonard Nimoy the human being from his Star Trek character’s indelible legacy, For the Love of Spock still manages to maintain a fairly even tone between personal reflection and fan-pleasing celebration.

Like a lot of show-biz kids, Adam had to come to terms with having to “share” his famous parent with legions of adoring fans. In fact, between the ages of 10-13, Adam saw very little of his father, due to his involvement with the original run of Star Trek (1966-1969). While he doesn’t go into specifics, Adam refers to periods of their lives where he and his father had “issues” communicating with each other.

Undoubtedly, not having one of his parents around while he was weathering the raging hormonal changes of puberty may have been a contributing factor. Nimoy doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times, either; particularly in reference to his father’s career slide in the early 1970s (in the wake of the unceremonious cancellation of the series by the network), which led to some problems with alcohol.

Thankfully,  Nimoy avoids descending into the kind of navel-gazing that has sunk a few similar documentaries that deal with growing up in the shadow of a famous parent. He remains mindful of the film’s core audience, devoting the lion’s share to, well, the love of Spock.

There’s lots of archival footage, plus snippets Leonard Nimoy did for this film (which was still in production when he passed away). There are also observations by fans, cast members of the current Star Trek film franchise, and former colleagues like William Shatner, George Takei, Michelle Nichols and Walter Koenig (Koenig shares a little-told backstage tale about the voice casting for the Star Trek cartoon series that speaks volumes about Nimoy’s generosity of spirit).

If I have any quibbles, it would be with the syrupy music score, which is over-intrusive at times. The film might feel a tad overlong for some (especially if you’re not a Trekker). But its heart is in the right place; and for those of a certain age, it’s a pleasingly nostalgic wallow.