Category Archives: Drama

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray reissue: Ocean Waves ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Ocean Waves – Universal Studios Home Entertainment Blu-ray

This 1993 anime is one of the last remaining “stragglers” from Japan’s Studio Ghibli vaults to make a belated (and most welcome) debut on Blu-ray (it was previously only available on PAL-DVD). Adapted by Kaori Nakamura from Saeko Himruo’s novel, and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, it concerns a young man who returns to his home town for a high school reunion, which triggers a flood of memories about all the highs and lows of his adolescent years. It’s similar in tone to another Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, which also takes a humanistic look at the universality of growing pains.

On a sliding scale, this is one of Ghibli’s “lesser” films, but the studio has set a high bar for itself, and it will please  Ghibli completists (who, me?). Extras are scant, but the hi-definition transfer is lovely.

Blu-ray reissue: Man Facing Southeast ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Man Facing Southeast – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

I originally caught this 1986 sleeper from Argentina on Cinemax 30 years ago and have been seeking it ever since. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray edition signals the film’s first domestic availability in a digital format.

Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case.

While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching. Extras include interviews with Subiela, Soto, and DP Ricardo de Angelis.

Blu-ray reissue: Fat City ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Fat City– Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Like most character studies, this film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so well fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft. Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film. The print is beautifully restored, and extras include new interviews with the cast.

Trees are important: After the Storm ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 24, 2017)

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Back in February of this year, my dear mother passed away, at the age of 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for a number of years, the straw that ultimately claimed her (pancreatic cancer) was diagnosed mere weeks before she died. In fact, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight to Ohio turned into a grim race; near as I could figure, my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard.

Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her final days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that several days prior, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).

Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer spotting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brother were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with 3 simple words: “Trees are important.”

I’ve been mulling over those words. What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the very lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity” about The Things That Really Matter? Granted, it may not be as cinematic as “Rosebud”, but it’s at the very least a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan. If I’d been there, I might’ve responded with something profound, like “Nicely put.”

I believe that is why, only three minutes in to writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant new family drama, After the Storm, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly choking up over an exchange between a mother and a daughter during the opening scene. Perhaps I should say that my reaction was all at once unexpected…yet immediately understood.

“You’ll go senile being alone all the time,” a middle-aged woman named Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) admonishes her recently-widowed mother (Kirin Kiki), “Go out and make friends.” Not missing a beat as she merrily bustles about the kitchen, Mom wryly rejoins “New friends at my age only mean more funerals.” Then, returning to stirring the simmering pot on the stove, the mother muses softly (half to herself), “The flavor sinks into the ingredients, if you cool it down slowly and let it sit overnight. Just like people.”

“Nicely put,” says a visibly surprised Chinatsu, with a smile.

“Nicely put” is how I would, in general, describe Kore-eda’s flair for dialogue throughout this wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story.

The prodigal is Chinatsu’s younger brother Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who has been drifting away from his sister and their mother in the wake of his divorce from Kyoko (Yoko Maki). While he is basically good-hearted, Ryota is a classic man-child who seems to be his own worst enemy. He works as a private detective, which he insists is not a “job”, but rather, “research” for a novel he is allegedly formulating. He actually is a published writer; his debut novel earned him a (relatively obscure) book award. However, that was some time ago, and his literary license for reveling in past glories has definitely expired.

He has also long ago squandered any monies earned, due to his compulsive gambling habit. This propensity also keeps him in arrears on child support payments for his 11 year-old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). He treasures his weekly visitations with Shingo; however Kyoko is threatening to cut them off if he doesn’t stay caught up on payments.

Ryota still carries the torch for his ex-wife; he enlists his partner at the detective agency to help do a little extra-curricular surveillance on Kyoko, and is distressed to see that she appears to be happily ensconced with a new boyfriend. His partner indulges him, but wisely counsels that perhaps it is time to let go, just as Kyoko seems to have moved on.

But fate and circumstance conspire (I’m saying it) one dark and stormy night to force an awkward family reunion; Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo hunker down to ride out a typhoon in his mother’s cramped apartment. This sets the stage for the third act, which is essentially a chamber piece about love, late-blooming “maturity”, and the renewal of family bonds.

It’s inevitable to draw comparisons here with the work of one of the masters of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), whose name has become synonymous with such quietly observant family dramas. That being said, Kore-eda, while no less subtle than Ozu-san, is slightly less formal in his approach. In this respect, his film reminds me more of contemporary director Mike Leigh, another film maker who specializes in narratives regarding modern family dynamics, imbued with a seldom-matched sense of authenticity.

All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when Abe and scene-stealer 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 rewarded. It may be true, as Tom Waits says, that “things are tough all over, when the thunderstorms start”, but after the storm, all is renewed. Kore-eda’s film reminds us that families, like trees, are important.

For my mother

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SIFF 2017: This is Our Land ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This French film might be a little too close for comfort…while ostensibly based on the rise of far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen, it could just as well be the cautionary tale America desperately needed about, oh, two years ago. Emilie Dequenne is quite good as a single-mom home care nurse with no previous political experience who gets sweet-talked by a local right-wing power-broker into running for mayor on a populist ticket. Her campaign is compromised once she becomes romantically re-involved with her old high-school boyfriend, who claims to have put his dubious past involving a xenophobic extremist group behind him. Belgian director Lucas Belvaux’s film (reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate) is a sobering reminder that that old axiom about “the road to hell” being “paved with good intentions” is truer than ever.

SIFF 2017: Pyromaniac ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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It’s not your imagination…”Nordic noir” is a thing (e.g. Scandinavian TV series like The Bridge, Wallander, and the Millennium trilogy). One of the progenitors was Erik Skjoldbjærg’s critically acclaimed 1997 thriller Insomnia (not to be confused with Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake). The Norwegian director returns with this somewhat glacially-paced but nonetheless involving drama about the son of a fire chief who goes on a fire setting spree. The troubled protagonist’s psycho-sexual issues reminded me of the lead character in Equus. Beautifully photographed by Gosta Reiland.

SIFF 2017: White Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Director Deepak Rauniyar uses the family row that ensues when a Maoist rebel returns to his isolated mountain village for his Royalist father’s funeral as an allegory for the political woes that have divided and ravaged his home country of Nepal. Naturalistic performances and rugged location shooting greatly enhance a story that beautifully illustrates how a country’s people, like members of an estranged family, must strive to rediscover common ground before meaningful healing can begin.

Unhappy meal: The Dinner *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie sub-genre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

Oren Moverman’s new drama The Dinner edges closest to the “dinner party gone awry” meme, with a generous dollop of “you only hurt the ones you love” tossed in for giggles.

Actually, there are very few (intentional) giggles in this histrionic disappointment from a director who has done better work and a tragically wasted cast (so much for burying my lede). Set in an upscale restaurant and using a framing device that divides the narratives into chapters (of a sort), delineated by the many courses of the meal, Moverman’s story (adapted from the novel by Herman Koch) centers on a (wait for it) dysfunctional family.

In this corner, we have Richard Gere (in full, insufferably over-confident alpha mode) as a Congressman in the midst of a run for governor, and his lovely wife (Rebecca Hall). And in this corner, we have the Congressman’s agoraphobic, insufferably neurotic academic brother (Steve Coogan) and his lovely wife (Laura Linney).

The brothers have not been on speaking terms for most of their adult lives, but an odious crime committed by their teenage sons (and posted on YouTube by a third party) has necessitated a truce. The boys’ identities are concealed by the fuzzy video, but the couples are struggling with how to best handle it all. As the evening progresses, the familial bloodletting commences.

It’s an intriguing setup, but something went terribly wrong with this film, which I found deadly dull and thoroughly unpleasant to sit through. The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the casting; these are all wonderful actors. That said, Steve Coogan in particular makes some truly awful choices in his performance. It pains me to say this, as he is one of my favorite comedic actors; and perhaps that’s the problem…he is trying too hard. He has successfully tackled dramatic roles in the past, but it may take time to live this one down.

It’s a major letdown from Moverman, who has directed and/or written some exemplary films in the past. In fact, his film The Messenger (my review) made my top 10 of 2009, his film Rampart (my review) made my top 10 films of 2011, and a film he scripted, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (my review) made my top 10 of 2013. Oh well. I guess even some of the best 4-star restaurants serve up the odd plate of overcooked ham. C’est la vie.

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.