Category Archives: Drama

Put some shorts on

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo o February 18, 2017

https://i2.wp.com/blog.gospikes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Trophy_Oscar1.jpg?resize=474%2C474

At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of (your deity of choice) and all six of my readers: I have not seen any of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture of 2016. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (the films are held over this week in Seattle and will be on various streaming platforms February 21).

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

https://i0.wp.com/www.nziff.co.nz/assets/resized/sm/upload/0u/ct/x5/fv/Blind%20Vaysha%20-%20Theodore%20Ushev-web-0-960-0-450-crop.jpg?w=474

Blind Vaysha (Canada; 8 mins) – Directed by Theodore Ushev, this piece (based on the eponymous short story by Georgi Gospodinov) is a parable about a girl born with uniquely dichotomous vision: one eye sees the past, the other the future. Is it a metaphor about living in the moment? Oh, maybe. Simple, direct, and affecting, with a woodcut-style “look” that reminded me of Tomm Moore’s animated films (The Secret of Kells).

Rating: ***

https://i1.wp.com/www.shockmansion.com/wp-content/myimages/2016/10/ergetg.jpg?w=474

Borrowed Time (USA; 7 mins) – Set in the old west, this portrait of remembrance and regret is visually impressive, and seems well-intentioned…but it’s curiously uninvolving. It’s co-directed by veteran Pixar Studios animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj.

Rating: **

https://i0.wp.com/www.cartoonbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/pearcider_main-1280x600.jpg?resize=474%2C222

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada/UK; 35 mins) – Director Robert Valley’s resume includes a graphic novel series; and his film definitely has that dark vibe. It’s a noir-ish memoir concerning the narrator’s longtime love/hate relationship with his best buddy, “Techno Stypes”, a charismatic but maddeningly self-destructive Neal Cassady-type figure. The story is involving at the outset, but becomes somewhat redundant and ultimately, tiring. Atmospheric, and great to look at-but even at 35 minutes, it’s overlong. Note: Parents should be advised that this one (not exactly “family-friendly”) is being exhibited last, allowing time for attendees to opt out (“hey kids-who wants ice cream?!”).

Rating: **½

https://i2.wp.com/www.monologueblogger.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Short-Film-Review-Pearl.jpg?w=474

Pearl (USA; 6 mins) – A young girl and her free-spirited musician father have a care-free, nomadic existence living out of their car, but as the years pass, life’s bumpy road creates challenging detours (Jesus, did I just write that? A gig with Hallmark beckons). Quite lovely and very moving; it’s my favorite of the nominees in this category. It’s almost like a 6 minute distillation of Richard Linklater’s interminable Boyhood (wish I’d discovered this first-would have saved me some time). Well-directed by Patrick Osborne.

Rating: ***½

https://s.aolcdn.com/dims-shared/dims3/GLOB/crop/1810x959+0+57/resize/660x350!/format/jpg/quality/85/https:/s.aolcdn.com/hss/storage/midas/45b331f6831f709f130f336d66eb53df/203954728/piper+2.jpg

Piper (USA; 6 mins) – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a Pixar nomination in this category is as unavoidable as Taylor Swift at the Grammys. Actually (long-time readers will back me up on this) I have softened on my curmudgeonly stance on CGI animation, enough to cave on this animal-lover’s delight. Not much of a narrative, but somehow “the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline (the end)” is a perfect salve for what’s, you know…going on the world right now. In fact, I might need to watch this on a loop, just to keep from hurtling myself off the nearest cliff. Beautifully directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer.

Rating: ***

And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

https://i1.wp.com/mcphedranbadside.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/enemies-within-.jpg?w=474

Ennemis Interieurs (France; 28 mins) – Set in 1990s France, an Algerian-born French citizen is given the third-degree at a police station regarding his association with members of his mosque who are suspected terrorists. The political subtext in Sleim Aszzazi’s film recalls The Battle of Algiers; with a touch of The Confession. While I appreciate what the director is trying to convey in his examination of Islamophobia, the film doesn’t go anywhere; it’s too dramatically flat to stand out in any significant way.

Rating: **½

https://i2.wp.com/s1.srf.ch/var/storage/images/auftritte/kultur/bilder/2016/11/24/node_11691581/130131271-3-ger-DE/bild_s8.jpg?w=474

La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland; 30 mins) – Inspired by a true story, Timo von Gentun’s film stars 60s icon Jane Birken (mother of Charlotte Gainesbourg) as a lonely widow living a quiet, structured life. “Quiet” with one exception-which is when a daily express train thunders past her cottage. Smiling and waving at the train is the highlight of her day. After she stumbles on a letter that the train’s conductor chucked into her garden, a unique relationship begins (a la 84 Charing Cross Road). OK, it is borderline schmaltzy at times-but also touching and bittersweet, with an endearing performance from Birken.

Rating: ****

https://i0.wp.com/www.awardsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/15418498_219540591828977_7764842687334714062_o-1024x684.jpg?resize=474%2C317&ssl=1

Silent Nights (Denmark; 30 mins) – A young Danish woman who works as a volunteer at a homeless shelter and an illegal immigrant from Ghana cross paths at the facility and develop a mutual attraction. Director Aske Bang uses the ensuing romantic relationship as political allegory; examining difficulties of cultural assimilation and the overall plight of immigrants in Western countries (much as Fassbinder did in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

Rating: ***

https://i2.wp.com/www.dteurope.com/images/culture/news/large/303/mindenki_sing_oscarnomination_oscar_go_com.jpg?w=474

Sing (Hungary; 25 mins) – It’s interesting that two of the five nominated films in this category are set in the 90s, and specifically in allusion to the political turmoil in Europe that was proliferating at the time (it’s either “interesting”, or perhaps I’m merely slow in catching on that “the 90s” was a generation ago, ergo “history”…funny how one loses sense of time as one ages, isn’t it?). At any rate, Kristof Deak’s tale centers on a young girl just starting out at a new school. She joins the choir, a perennially award-winning group with a dictatorial choir director. When she finds out that the “secret” to the choir’s continuing success is not above board, she is faced with a moral conundrum. Although based on a true story, it plays like a modern parable about the courage of whistleblowers.

Rating: ***½

https://i2.wp.com/affif-sitepublic-media-prod.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/film_film/0001/03/thumb_2004_film_film_big.jpeg?resize=474%2C317

Timecode (Spain; 15 mins) – As directed by Juanjo Gimenez Pena, this hipster catnip about two mopey millennial security guards (one male, one female) who barely exchange a word during their daily shift change is a glorified YouTube video that uses up its irony quotient quickly. I might have thrown it an extra star if it was but ten minutes shorter.

Rating: *

Sour notes: Max Rose **

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/jerry-lewis-max-rose.jpg?w=474

“Have you heard about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” For better or worse, that’s the best line in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis’ first starring vehicle since Peter Chelsom’s 1995 sleeper Funny Bones. Not that Max Rose is intended to be a comedy…far from it. Writer-director Daniel Noah’s film has much more gravity (ahem) than that timeworn groaner may infer.

Lewis is the titular character, a retired jazz pianist grieving over the recent death of his wife (Claire Bloom, relegated to flashbacks and the odd hallucination). Understandably, Max is a little morose (endless static shots of a brooding, stone-faced Lewis ensure that we “get” that). Even his sunny-side up granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) can barely get him to crack a smile. Again, Max did just lose his wife of 60 years; yet some deeply buried injury seems to be tugging at him.

Max’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral turns into an oddly self-deprecating rant, alarming both Annie and his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak). Soon thereafter, Max has a health scare while alone at home that prompts The Talk (the one we all dread…about assisted living). Max reluctantly acquiesces and checks in to a nursing home, but remains stubbornly aloof toward staff and fellow residents, until he gets liquored up one night with a posse of lively codgers (Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver). Defenses down, Max now opens up about his deeper hurt, something he discovered about his wife’s past while sorting through her personal effects after her death. He realizes the only way he’s going to have closure is to go meet face-to-face with an involved party.

Despite the bevy of acting talent on board, this film (an uneven mash-up of The Descendents with The Sunshine Boys) ultimately feels like a squandered opportunity. Lewis has proved himself to be a capable enough dramatic actor in the past (particularly in The King of Comedy, Arizona Dream, and the aforementioned Funny Bones), but here his performance flirts with mawkishness. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was doing his best with the sappy script. There are good moments; a protracted scene between Lewis and the always interesting Dean Stockwell hints at what could have been, but is not enough to raise the film above its steady level of “meh”.

Freudian nightmare: Tunnel ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

https://kaist455.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/tunnel01.jpg?w=474

Herbie Cook: The old man sure looked bad. Did you see his face?

Charles Tatum [thoughtfully]: Yeah.

Herbie Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.

Charles Tatum: One man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?

Herbie Cook: Teach me what?

Charles Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You read about 84 men, or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.

-from Ace in the Hole (1951), screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman.

There’s a lot of that “human interest” in Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel, a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks that are typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ.

Said to be “based on true events” (which puzzlingly stumps Mr. Google) the story centers on harried Everyman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Commuting home from his car salesman gig one fine sunny day, Jung-soo pulls into a service station. He asks for $30 worth of gas, but the elderly, hearing-impaired attendant gives him a nearly $100 fill-up instead. Jung-soo is a bit chagrined, but pays his bill and starts to pull away. The attendant runs after him and, by way of apology, insists that he accept two bottles of water. Jung-soo rolls his eyes, but acknowledges the gesture, tossing the bottles on the seat next to the boxed birthday cake he’s bringing home to his daughter.

And yes, it is the director’s intent that we make a special note of the bottled water, and the cake. As I am sure he wishes us to note the irony of the signage over the tunnel Jung-soo is headed for:

Hado Tunnel: Happy and Safe National Construction

As you may surmise (considering you know the premise of the film), Jung-soo’s passage through the Hado Tunnel on this particular fine sunny day will prove to be neither “happy”…nor “safe”.

To be honest, once the inevitable occurred (a harrowing sequence), I began to have doubts whether I could commit to the remaining 2 hours of the film; because I’m claustrophobic, and any story that involves physical entrapment freaks me out (as much as I admire Danny Boyle, I’ve yet to screw up the courage to sit through his 2010 thriller 127 Hours). And since that fear also precipitates white-knuckled parking in garages with low ceilings, driving across lower decks of double-decker bridges, and (wait for it) driving through tunnels…I was all set to just call it a day.

But thanks to Seong-hun’s substantive writing and direction and Jung-woo’s seriocomic performance (recalling Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian), I was absorbed enough by the story to allay my visceral concerns. And, akin to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.

Shell-shocker: Disorder **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/content.tiff.net/content/carousel/745c3c2eb0c071113ece136b371686c7.jpg?resize=474%2C238&ssl=1

In my 2009 review of the war drama Waltz With Bashir, I referred to an observation by the late great George Carlin, wherein he analyzes the etymology of the phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” and traces it back to WWI (when it was called “shell shock”). To which I appended:

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it ‘shell-shock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ or ‘PTSD’, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

True that. And while Carlin was referring to America’s war veterans through the decades, PTSD knows no borders. Consider Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) a French Special Forces Afghan War vet. He is the central character in Disorder, a new psychological thriller from director Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote with Jean-Stephane Bron, Robin Campillo, and Vincent Poymiro).

Insular, taciturn, and more than a little twitchy, Vincent can’t quite get a handle on things since getting back to the world. So much so, in fact, that he actually looks forward to being re-deployed for another tour of combat duty. Due to his condition, perhaps he can only find a sense of order in the chaos of war. His friend and fellow vet Denis (Paul Hami) is also his co-worker at a private security firm; Denis always keeps one concerned eye on him whenever they’re on an assignment.

Indeed, there does seem to be something a bit “off” about Vincent’s behavior one night when he and Denis are providing security for a large soiree taking place at the estate of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Vincent seems more bent on running surveillance on the client’s activities; his interest is particularly piqued by an apparent heated exchange between the businessman and a couple of his shadier-looking guests, sequestered in a private office well out of earshot from the festivities.

When Vincent is tasked to provide security for the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and young son while he is out of town on a business trip, Vincent’s inherent paranoia really comes to the fore (while wariness and diligence is something you look for in a bodyguard, any behavior bordering on delusional should raise a red flag). Another red flag: Vincent takes a sudden, uncharacteristic interest in the wife, but it’s hard to read whether his intentions are devious or protective in nature.

So is Vincent the possible threat to the safety and well-being of the clients’ wife and child? Or was he actually on to something the night of the party, with his suspicions that his client’s luxurious lifestyle hinges on potentially dangerous partnerships? Since we know going in that Vincent isn’t quite all there, due to his PTSD condition, the conundrum is all the more unnerving.

Unfortunately, after building up this considerable tension and intrigue (the first act hints at something brewing in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me), the director doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it; the narrative fizzles, and by the crucial third act (a tepid knockoff of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), the film hits the ground with a resounding thud.

Schoenaerts and Kruger are both fine actors (and easy on the eye), but they can only do so much with the uninspired script they’re working with. The film does sport some nice atmospheric work by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and a unique (and appropriately unsettling) soundtrack by Mark Levy, but alas, it still can’t make up for a thriller that is curiously devoid of any…thrills.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i2.wp.com/honeygluefilm.com/wp-content/uploads/Morgan-and-Jordan-1024x576.jpg?resize=474%2C267

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIFF 2016: Mekko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

https://i2.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/policymic-images/r9ejjtkqfjk7msdtvezvu7zvgfvhpy0agwcfdmj4tmcir6rc4vbligrvswfjollx.jpg?resize=474%2C250&ssl=1

Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world.

SIFF 2016: The Curve ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/www.siff.net/assets/Images/festival/2016/films/C/Curve.jpg?w=474

It’s tempting to describe Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders.

The empress has no pitch: Marguerite ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/www.cineavatar.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/marguerite.jpg?w=474

It’s been said that many who fancy themselves singers can’t “hear” their own true voice (ever been to a Karaoke bar?). Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; but in the ears, not so much. Off key is off key, and unfortunately for wealthy arts patron Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) this is Paris in the 20s, and Auto-Tune is many decades hence.

Her heart is in the right place, though. In fact music is her driving passion, and in the opening of writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s eponymous drama, we witness a gathering of aristocrats (and a few party-crashers) that has converged on Marguerite’s sprawling estate for a charity fundraiser. Marguerite has invited a number of accomplished musicians to perform. The biggest buzz surrounds the headliner-Marguerite herself, who has prepared one of her favorite Soprano pieces to regale her guests with. However, she’s holding off until her husband Georges (Andre Marcon) arrives; it seems he has car issues.

It turns out that Georges has frequent trouble with the car; weirdly enough this occurs every time Marguerite gives a recital at their home (although the significance of this “coincidence” has never occurred to the unflappably enthusiastic Marguerite). As the guests are getting impatient, the show must go on…and so Marguerite takes center stage.

When Marguerite begins to sing, erm, how can I put this politely…well, let’s just say she is no Edith Piaf. OK, full disclosure: Her caterwauling could decalcify your spinal column at 100 paces. She’s godawful. But…she’s so enthusiastically godawful that she is at once oddly endearing. We assume this, because nobody has ever told her how utterly horrifying her singing is; neither her guests (who in fact give her a standing O) nor her longtime butler (Denis Mpunga), nor husband (aside from those “problems” with the car).

Two of the “party-crashers” I referred to earlier are an ambitious young journalist and his pal, an avant-garde provocateur, who are intrigued by the inexplicably sycophantic cocoon of “admirers” that enables Marguerite to remain cheerfully oblivious to her atonal warbling. Do they do this out of kindness? Or are they being ironic? Perhaps there’s something the young men are “missing”? The pair decides to conduct a sort of social experiment. If they can coax Marguerite out of her hermetic bubble, into a real public performance, she might prove to be a true phenomenon. Stranger things have happened.

What ensues is a sometimes uneasy cross between The Producers and The Dinner Game. The saving grace is Frot’s brave and moving performance; she’s sweet, funny and heartbreaking all at once. Michel Fau is another standout as a fading opera singer who is reluctantly recruited into playing Henry Higgins to Marguerite’s Eliza Doolittle (his characterization also recalls the exasperated singing coach who is hired to tutor Orson Welles’ tone-deaf wife in Citizen Kane). While there are many amusing moments, this is not a lighthearted romp; the odious, uniquely human capacity to cruelly exploit others for personal gain is on full display. Then again, you know what they say: “That’s show biz!

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/63/e7/74/63e7744382723392e49590ecfa8d79fd.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a “ribbon of dreams” (to quote Orson Welles) to begin with. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters, the viewer, or both are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Or was it all a dream…or a living nightmare? Maybe the protagonist is really d- …oops, spoiler alert! In alphabetical order:

Carny–This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his pal (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle. The story is raised above its inherent sleaze by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the Insult Clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curveball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full review).

Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  • Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.                                                                                                                  
  • You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a masterful screenplay (by Robert Towne), two leads at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll have a film that deserves its designation as a “classic”. I know to expect it now, but that family secret revealed at the end still “surprises” me.

The Godfather Part II – “I knew it was you.” The betrayal (and the payback) remain two of cinema’s greatest shockers, and Coppola’s sequel is more than equal to its predecessor.

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mind fuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this one of his fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” with David Lynch). Some reviewers have suggested the film is structured as homage to The Wizard of Oz; while I wouldn’t dismiss that out of hand, I’d cautiously file it under “Pink Floyd theory” (see my review below). At any rate, this one grew on me; by the third (or fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts.

Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (quite reminiscent of the 1962 film Carnival of Souls). It’s a bit thin on narrative (critical reception was mixed), but high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rosselli. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

The Stunt Man – How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed several times by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?” That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is  filming an arty WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least. O’Toole really chews the scenery, supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield.

The Usual Suspects – What separates Bryan Singer’s sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s (aside from his tight direction) is a perfectly chosen cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), whip smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending. The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

The Wizard of Oz – So the jury is still out as to when to drop the needle. Conventional wisdom advises the 3rd roar of the MGM lion; but there are still those who would argue the case for the 1st or 2nd roar. Then is yet another school of thought that subscribes to waiting until the logo fades to black. I’m sorry, I just realized I’m being exclusionary to readers who don’t have time to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way, hunting for that sweet spot that syncs up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. At any rate, long before that mashup was but a gleam in a stoner’s reddened eye, Victor Fleming’s 1939 beloved musical fantasy had already been emulated, quoted, parodied and analyzed ad nauseam. Obviously, it’s on my list for 2(!) Big Reveals in the third act.

Enemy to all mankind: A War ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 27, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/cdn1.thr.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/landscape_928x523/2015/08/A_War_Still.jpg?w=474

Dress me up for battle

When all I want is peace

Those of us who pay the price

Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Remember the Afghanistan War? What do you mean, “which one”? Y’know…the latest one; the one that “ended” in 2014 (or are we just taking a breather? I’ve long lost track). At any rate, while it’s no secret it was/is largely a “we” (as in “American”) problem, it is easy to forget that “we” weren’t the only ones who invested precious blood and treasure in that war; there were coalition forces involved as well. Take Denmark, for example. 43 dead, 211 wounded, and 15 billion kroner spent by the time the Danes pulled out in 2013.

And now, those young men and women who have “paid the price” of the Danish-Afghan conflict may have their generation’s Coming Home (or The Deer Hunter) in the guise of A War, a powerful and sobering Oscar-nominated drama from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a compassionate company commander stationed in the Helmand Province. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids (especially the youngest, who frequently wonders aloud when his dad’s coming home). The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly un-Hollywoodized war movie; the mundanities of everyday life hold equal import with the odd rush of adrenaline). The only nod to convention comes in a slight tonal shift in the third act; a touch of military courtroom drama recalling Breaker Morant (my review).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger.