Category Archives: Dramedy

Family affairs: Landline **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Why are New Yorkers always screaming at each other? Is it in order to be heard above the constant din of traffic, sirens, and subway brakes? Maybe there really is something in the water (that same “whatsit” in NYC tap water that makes the bagels taste so…intense).

There’s even more screaming than usual in the latest NYC-based film, Landline. That’s because director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) sets her tale of two sisters in the mid-1990s, a not-so-bygone era when humans were still experiencing “face time” with each other (now the only time people turn off their goddam personal devices is when they pay $15 to sit in the dark-and watch characters in a film text each other for 2 hours).

Not that there is anything wrong with a dialog-driven film…and every character in Landline has plenty to say, particularly the two sisters I mentioned earlier. Dana (Jenny Slate) is the older of the siblings. She’s recently become engaged to her live-in boyfriend Ben (Jay Duplass), who is a bit of a milquetoast in contrast with his quirky, bubbly fiancée. That could explain why Dana seems to be vacillating about this big commitment.

Something else has been weighing on Dana’s mind…she suspects that her father (John Turturro) has  been carrying on a longtime affair. When she confides this to her sullen teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn), the previously estranged pair now find themselves bonding as they team up to dig deeper. The trickiest part is how to carry on sleuthing without sending up red flags to their mom (Edie Falco).

Lots of family angst (and yes, screaming) ensues. Fortunately, there are laughs as well. That said, you do have to wade waist-deep in neurotic New Yorker whingeing for 90 minutes to net the choicest zingers (which average about once every five minutes or so).

Frankly, what keeps this derivative mashup of Hannah and Her Sisters and a glorified episode of HBO’s Girls afloat is an appealing cast. The always-reliable Turturro and Falco do that voodoo that they do so well, and Slate and Quinn hold their own against the seasoned players. Slate, in particular is a young actor I’d love to see more of; she has a naturally goofy charm that is hard to resist. She’s like the lovechild of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. For all I know…she is.

SIFF 2017: Ears **

By Dennis Hartley

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

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This entry from Italian writer-director Alessandro Aronadio is a deadpan dramedy in the Jim Jarmusch vein. Filmed in stark B&W, it follows the travails of a sad sack protagonist who awakens in his girlfriend’s apartment to a ringing in his ears and a cryptic, scribbled note on the fridge. This kick-starts an increasingly bizarre and surreal day in the life. At times, it recalls Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, but unfortunately, it’s not as compelling. A few good chuckles here and there…but this film goes nowhere, fast.

SIFF 2017: Boundaries **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Have you ever heard of the tiny island-nation of Besco, which is located “50 km off the coast of Labrador”? Me neither. I sheepishly asked Mr. Google, and found out that it is from the mind of writer-director Chloe Robichaud (next thing you’ll tell me is that movies are totally make-believe). I admit, she really had me going for 98 minutes (oh, those Quebecois film makers!). The film is a feminist parable about an emergency summit called for by the newly-elected female president of “Besco” to negotiate possible foreign investment in the island’s iron ore. At its best, it reminded me of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero; at its weakest, it’s uneven and ultimately too “inside” for anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics.

SIFF 2017: A Date for Mad Mary ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective. Kerslake’s remarkable debut reminds me of Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here (my review).

Just watch it through your fingers: Donald Cried ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2017)

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In my 2014 tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, I wrote:

You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

There are many things about Donald Cried that will likely make you cringe. In fact, the film’s titular character (played by its writer-director Kris Avedisian) is the type of role Hoffman would have felt quite comfortable tackling…expressly for the purpose of making us feel uncomfortable.

A sort of twisty cross between Vincent Gallo’s cringe-inducing black comedy Buffalo ’66 and Miguel Arteta’s equally discomfiting character study Chuck and Buck, Avedisian’s story centers on a thirty-something Wall Street banker named Peter (Jesse Wakeman) who returns to the blue-collar Rhode Island burg where he grew up to bury his grandmother and tidy up all of her affairs.

During his taxi ride from the train station to his late grandmother’s house, Peter realizes (much to his chagrin) that he has lost his wallet while in transit. Quickly exhausting all other options for assistance, the panicked Peter has little choice but to walk across the street, where his childhood pal Donald lives. We quickly glean why he just didn’t go there first-Donald is beyond the beyond.

Donald is overjoyed to see Peter again after all these years. Disturbingly overjoyed, like a deliriously happy puppy who dances around your legs like a dervish because he was sure you were abandoning him forever when you left the house for 2 minutes to check the mail. In other words. Donald seems oblivious to the time-space continuum. While Peter has chosen to put away childish things and engage the world of adult responsibility, Donald was frozen in carbonite at 15.

Still, if Peter is to stick to his timetable of wrapping up the grandmother business in 24 hours, Donald (who has a car) looks to be his only hope. From their first stop at the funeral home, it’s clear that Donald’s complete lack of a social filter is going to make this a painfully long 24 hours.

The tortuous path of the “man-child” is rather well-trod, particularly in modern indie filmdom. That said, there is a freshness to Avedisian’s take, as well as an intimate authenticity to the performances that invites empathy from the viewer. Once you get past the cringe-factor, you actually do care about the characters, especially when you realize we’ve all known a Donald (or a Peter) sometime or another. Perchance we’ve even seen one looking back at us from a mirror, no?

Sunrise, sunset: Mia Madre ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2016)

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

–from the “Serenity Prayer”, by Reinhold Niebuhr

In my lukewarm 2012 review of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, I did give props to the Italian writer-director for “…humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.” I observed that Moretti’s protagonist was a (would-be) pontiff who “…elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity.”

Although Moretti’s latest effort is but the second film I have seen by this director, I’m sensing a theme. That’s because Mia Madre also centers on a protagonist who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility (in this case, a film director), and is depicted to be just as neurotic as anybody else. One could even say that a film set is also a “hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation” (of a sort). And indeed, over this cloistered, make-believe world, Margherita (Margherita Buy) holds sovereignty. But when it comes to her “real” life-not so much.

Every time she steps foot off her set, we sense Margherita’s power over her world diminishing. We see her literally gathering up the scant remnants of a failed relationship; dropping by her (soon to be) ex-lover’s apartment to collect some of her odds and ends. Her morose boyfriend (who, in a nice little directorial flourish, is sulking and listening to Leonard Cohen while she packs) gives her a desperate hug. “We know how things are,” she says a little unconvincingly, as she gently breaks away, “We’ve already decided.” To which he counters, “No…you’ve decided.”

Other aspects of her personal life are slipping through her fingers. She is stressed over the declining health of her hospitalized mother (Giulia Lazzarini), which in turn is exacerbating a gulf between Margherita and her teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini). The only rock she can seem to cling to in her destabilizing spin is her Zen-like brother Giovanni (director Moretti), who urges her to get a grip (he’s the only person in her orbit who intuits that she is headed for a crash).

We know Margherita is losing it, because she is having Fellini-esque, metaphor-laden daydreams suggesting as such (echoes of 8 ½). In fact, chaos (internal and external) seems to be a central theme. The fictional director’s film within the film is a polemic concerning factory workers in the midst of a tumultuous labor dispute; Margherita’s set itself gets thrown into disarray upon arrival of a mercurial American actor (played to the back row by the ever hammy John Turturro).

While Maretti’s meta-narrative of a harried director juggling creative and personal issues while slogging through a film shoot begs comparison to Truffaut’s Day for Night, he ultimately digs into more elemental themes, revealed incrementally. Maretti’s measured pacing may give you some pause, so be advised that it does require your attention (and patience) to fully appreciate the denouement: one word of dialog that not only packs an emotional wallop and beautifully ties the entire film together, but gives us all a reassuring moment of clarity amidst the chaos of adult life.

SIFF 2016: Home Care ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.

Paper ring: The 10 worst date flicks for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 13, 2016)

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To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

 –William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

You’re breakin’ my heart
You’re tearing it apart…so fuck you

-Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson, “You’re Breaking My Heart”

 Alright, I’ve covered the “warm and fuzzy” angle for Valentine’s Day. But there are two sides to every coin. This “holiday” depresses some people. It’s just a corporate invention; a marketing ploy to push overpriced cards and chocolates, right? So I say, embrace your melancholia! I mean, I may be “alone”, but I’m not “lonely”, right? Right? Anyone? Bueller? Hello? (tap, tap) Is this internet working?

Anyway…here you go, alphabetically:

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Baby Doll – In 1956, this deliciously squalid melodrama (directed by Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams) was decried by the “Legion of Decency” for its “carnal suggestiveness”. Granted, there is something suggestive about a sultry, PJ-clad 19 year old (Carroll Baker) sucking her thumb, while curled up in a child’s crib. This is how we are introduced to the virgin bride of creepy old Archie (Karl Malden), who is breathlessly counting down to Baby Doll’s next birthday. They married when she was 18, but Archie is beholden to “no consummation” until she’s 20.

In return, Archie swears to renovate his rundown cotton gin so he can bathe her in luxury, ‘til death do they part. In reality, Archie is as bereft of coin as he is lustful in loin. This leads to an ill-advised act that puts him in hot water with his prosperous business rival (Eli Wallach). Instead of getting mad, Wallach decides to get even…by seducing Baby Doll. The seduction scene is a classic; it doesn’t “show” you anything, yet implies much (it is largely left up to your imagination).

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Crazy Love – For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the Bizarro World “love story” of Burt and Linda Pugach, I won’t risk spoilers regarding this 2007 documentary. Suffice it say, if you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to obsession and dysfunction in romantic relationships, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. One thing I will tell you, is that despite the shocking and odious nature of the act that one of these two people visits upon the other at one point in their life together, it’s still not so cut and dry as to whose “side” you want to be on, because both of these people got off the bus in Crazy Town a long time ago. This film is the antonym for “date movie”. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens directed.

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Happiness – If you you’re partial to network narratives populated  by emotionally needy neurotics, this 1998 Todd Solondz film is in your wheelhouse. There are bold performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction, as you watch a sad parade of completely hapless individuals make desperate, cringe-inducing stabs at establishing meaningful connections sometime before they die (the human condition?). Standouts in the huge cast include the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker and Camryn Manheim. Keep a pint of Ben and Jerry’s handy.

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The Honeymoon Killers – Several decades before Natural Born Killers was even a gleam in Oliver Stone’s eye, writer-director Leonard Kastle made this highly effective low-budget exploitation film (based on a true story) about a pair of murderous lovebirds. Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) meet via a “lonely hearts” correspondence club and find that they have a lot more in common than the usual love of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. Namely, they’re both full-blown sociopaths, who cook up a scheme to lure lonely women into their orbit so they can kill them and take their assets. Stoler and Lo Bianco have great chemistry as the twisted couple. The stark B & W photography and verite approach enhances the overall creepy vibe. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but was quickly fired (!). This was Kastle’s only film.

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The Night Porter – Director Liliana Cavani brilliantly uses a story of a sadomasochistic relationship as both an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany and an examination of sexual politics. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. It’s disturbing and repulsive…yet still compelling.

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Sid and Nancy – The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer (then again, that’s tonight’s theme), but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”). The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins.

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Smash Palace – Dramatic films about the disintegration of a marriage aren’t exactly a romp in the fields to begin with (and as date movies…it’s safe to say that they are right out), but can be particularly heart-wrenching when children are involved (e.g. Kramer vs Kramer or Shoot the Moon). Few genre entries I’ve seen are as raw and emotionally draining as this nearly forgotten 1981 gem from New Zealand.

An early effort from writer-director Roger Donaldson (The Bounty, No Way Out, Thirteen Days), the film features a tour-de-force performance by Bruno Lawrence, as an eccentric race car driver/salvage yard owner who neglects his wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) to the point where she has an affair. The cuckolded hubby (already a walking time bomb) does not react well. Donaldson sustains an incredible sense of tension. Riveting and unpredictable right up to the end.

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Swept Away – The time-honored “man and woman stuck on a desert island” scenario is served up with a heaping tablespoon of class struggle and an acidic twist of sexual politics in this controversial 1975 film from Italian director Lena Wertmuller. A shrill and haughty bourgeoisie woman (Mariangela Melato) charters a yacht cruise for herself and her equally obnoxious fascist friends, who all seem to delight in belittling their slovenly deck hand (Giancarlo Giannini), who is a card-carrying communist. Fate and circumstance conspire to strand Melato and Giannini together on a small Mediterranean isle, setting the stage for some interesting role reversal games. BTW, in case you are curious about the Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake? Here’s a two-word review: Stay away!

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”.   Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. Don’t forget, the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

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Your Friends and Neighbors – With friends and neighbors like these…oy. A very dark social satire from the Prince of Darkness himself, playwright-writer-director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty). As in most LaBute narratives, there’s nary a sympathetic character in sight in this study of two unhappy couples and their circle of unhappy friends. Everybody makes bad choices and generally treat each other like shit. Cynical, appalling, and perversely funny. You’ll love it! Aaron Eckart, Jason Patric, Amy Brenneman, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, and Ben Stiller make a crack ensemble.

…and now here’s the late great Harry Nilsson to sing us out:

Sit on this: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2015)

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the kind of film that critics elbow past each other in a desperate scramble to post the earliest time-stamped review that name checks Kierkegaard and Beckett. Just between you and me and the bird feeder, I find Kierkegaard unreadable, and once nodded off during a performance of Waiting for Godot. So rest assured, gentle reader, that you needn’t worry about suffering through smug references to long-dead existentialists and avant-garde playwrights…no siree, Bob.

You have to understand, I never went to college, or even film school. I’m just a simple farmer. I’m a person of the land; the common clay of the American West. You know…

A moron.

(Awkward silence). Give me a sec; I just need to come up with some clever angle now.

How do I summarize a film that is cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes which share little in common save for the fact that they share little in common, I’ll pick one at random, in which a girl recites the following “original” poem in front of her class:

A pigeon sat on a branch, reflecting on existence                                                        It rested, and reflected on the fact                                                                                 That it had no money                                                                                                              It flew home

Now I may not know Schopenhauer from Fahrvergnugen, but I do know Douglas Adams:

The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool                                                                 They lay. They rotted. They turned around occasionally                                  Bits of flesh dropped off them from time to time                                                 And sank into the pool’s mire                                                                                       They also smelt a great deal.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Or should I tell you the one about the two traveling novelty item salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, the titular “stars” of the film) who walk into a bar and begin their pitch, only to be rudely interrupted by a thirsty, horse-borne King Karl XII and his vast army (presumably on their way to Moscow), who have all somehow dropped in from the 18th Century? Oh, you’ve heard that one?

Then pretend I never said anything.

I could describe some of the other vignettes, some funny, some tragic, and mostly absurd…but I don’t see much point. Which I suppose is precisely the director’s point. There is no point in describing the pointlessness of it all. Therefore, he’s made his point.

So am I recommending it? You may remember this exchange from Play it Again, Sam:

Allan:  That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn’t it?

Museum Girl:  Yes, it is.    

Allan:  What does it say to you?    

Museum Girl:  It restates the negativeness of the Universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man, forced to live a barren, Godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless, bleak strait-jacket in a black absurd Cosmos.

Allan:  What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum Girl:  Committing suicide.

Allan:  What about Friday night?

Or you can look at it this way: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch made $8,119 last weekend. Minions made $115,718,405. What does it say to you? Oh, OK. What about Friday night?

SIFF 2015: Diner **** (Archival presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives. All are slogging fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”.

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!