Category Archives: Drug Culture

Blu-ray reissue: Sid and Nancy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Sid and Nancy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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, 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, which is really brought to the fore in Criterion’s 4K restoration. Extras include a 1987 doc on the making of the film, and the “infamous” 1976 Sex Pistols TV interview with Bill Grundy.

SIFF 2017: Godspeed **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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This neo-noir “buddy film” from Taiwanese writer-director Chung Mung-Hong concerns an aging, life-tired taxi driver (Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui) who unwittingly picks up a twitchy young drug mule (Na Dow). Blackly comic cat-and-mouse games involving rivaling mobsters ensue as the pair are pushed into an intercity road trip, with their fates now inexorably intertwined. If the setup rings a bell, yes, it is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, but unfortunately not in the same league. It’s not the actors’ fault; the two leads are quite good. The problem lies in the uneven pacing (an overlong and gratuitous torture scene stops the film in its tracks). Likely too many slow patches for action fans, yet too much jolting violence for those partial to road movies. It does have its moments, and I’m sure there is an audience for it, but I’m just not sure who.

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?

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?

Setting a bad example – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2016)

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“The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. [ ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. “

– Joanna Lumley (from a Stylist interview)

While you may assume Ms. Lumley (above right), one of the stars of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is referring to the 1950s when she says “those days”, she is actually referring to the 1990s…which is when she originally assumed the character of “Patsy Stone” in the popular Britcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996, later revived 2001-2004). The BBC series was the brainchild of brilliantly funny writer/actress Jennifer Saunders, casting herself as the other half of this fabulous duo, Edina Monsoon.

Edina is a PR agent, whose biggest client is Lulu (yes, that Lulu, who played herself to amusing effect in the TV series and reappears in the new film). Patsy is a magazine editor, and Edina’s BFF. While they both have “jobs” (in a manner of speaking), we rarely see them “working”, in the traditional sense. They expend most of their time cringingly attempting to ingratiate themselves with London’s hippest taste-makers, fashionistas, pop stars, and hottest actors/actresses du jour. For the most part, they’re snubbed (or ignored altogether). Yet they persevere, when not otherwise busy imbibing champagne and/or any drug they are within snorting distance of. Patsy, in particular, is always on the pull; usually for younger men (there’s a switch). Bad behavior all around.

Back to Lumley’s observations for a moment. I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with her point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to call out a new Bizarro World Hays Code from a portion of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

In light of today’s techy climate for comedy, another principal character in Absolutely Fabulous, Edina’s daughter Saffron (played by Julia Sawalha, also reprising her original role in the film) almost seems a prescient creation on Saunders’ part. Saffron, who progressed from secondary school to university through the course of the original series, was really the only “adult” character in the household. Dour, disapproving, and very P.C. (long before the term became so de rigueur) she did her best to keep her mother in line (rarely succeeding, to her chagrin). So here you have the child lecturing the parent to get home at a decent hour, lay off the drugs, be more financially responsible, etc. Patsy, as Edina’s longtime chief enabler, views Saffron as a party-pooper (ergo her mortal enemy).

The show was not for all tastes; personally, I loved it. “Bad taste”, in the right hands, can make for some grand entertainment (John Waters’ oeuvre comes to mind). It was pretty outrageous, and very British; which is probably why we never saw an American remake (would never work anyway). In a roundabout way, it was also feminist-positive; in this respect the world has in fact “caught up with the Ab Fab women”, as evidenced by the success of HBO’s Girls, plus a recent slew of Comedy Central originals like Inside Amy Schumer, Another Period, and Broad City (the latter program comes closest to Ab Fab in attitude).

And so it is that the big screen adaptation (written by Saunders and directed by Mandie Fletcher), despite being at least 20 years tardy to cash in on its TV legs, surprisingly manages to retain its original ethos without really seeming that anachronistic. That is not to say that you should expect it to be much deeper than a sitcom episode. Which it isn’t.

The plot, of course, is completely ridiculous; Edina and Patsy get a hot tip that supermodel Kate Moss has dumped her PR person, so they weasel their way into a chic soiree (which they naturally would never be invited to attend), and somehow the overly-enthusiastic Edina knocks Kate over a railing into the murky depths of the Thames. Assuming (along with fellow attendees) that she has just sent one of the world’s most famous models to a watery grave, Edina and Patsy panic and flee to the South of France.

Does hilarity ensue? I wouldn’t rank it with Some Like it Hot (which is cleverly referenced in the final scene), but it is colorful, campy, over-the-top, and yes, politically incorrect…and quite amusing. Perhaps it does have something to say about social media feeding frenzies and mob mentality. You may forget what you watched by the time you get back to your car, but it sure is fun while it lasts. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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.

This country is going to pot: Rolling Papers **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 20, 2016)

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It must have looked great on paper. A timely documentary about the legal pot boom in Colorado, parsed via a cinema verite “ride along” with Ricardo Baca, the country’s first journalist to be hired by a major media outlet (The Denver Post) as a “marijuana editor” (with a nod, one hopes, to the stalwart pioneers at High Times). The filmmakers saw an opportunity to not only see how this burgeoning industry is shaping up, but to get an insider’s view of the alarmingly ever-shrinking universe of traditional print journalism.

Unfortunately, however, Mitch Dickman’s Rolling Papers falls somewhat flat on both fronts. The day-to-day workings of a daily rag have been done to death, and we get little more here than the standard by-the-numbers travails; deadlines, staff meetings, etc. While Baca has a unique gig, and appears to be a dedicated professional, as a film subject he lacks the charisma of say, (for the sake of argument) a David Carr, whose colorful personality helped bolster the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times.

 The film manages to generate a tad more interest on the weed milieu (if not necessarily offering anything new and/or revelatory; especially to anyone who has already cared enough to follow the issue over the years). It’s kind of fun (at first) following a couple of Baca’s “reviewers at large” around as they visit shops, sample the wares and then make valiant attempts to attack the keyboard while still under the influence (it quickly becomes apparent as to why Baca himself does not partake…someone has to stay straight and be the managing editor, if you know what I’m saying). It was a nice try, but only half-baked.

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:

Here’s to bad taste: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2015)

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Not that anyone asked (or gives a rat’s ass), but if pressed to name the Holy Trinity of influences on my work over the years as a radio personality, stand-up comic and writer, I would cite The Firesign Theatre, Monty Python and The National Lampoon (gee…can you tell that my formative years were the late 60s thru the mid-70s?).

If there is one thing that members of the Trinity all share in common, it’s a strict adherence to the #1 rule of comedy: Nothing is Sacred. It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned flourished concurrently, in the early to mid-70s; if they were coming on the scene only now with original comic sensibilities intact, the P.C. police would have them all sitting on Death Row within a matter of hours.

Long before YouTube, we pawed through things called “humor magazines” for a laugh fix. They were made from trees, printed with ink, and purchased from comically tiny brick and mortar stores called “newsstands”. If I saw something really funny in the magazine that I had to share with my friends, I would have to literally share the magazine with my friends. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that the publishers of The National Lampoon developed the following formula to determine readership: the number of subscribers, x 12 (the number of people an average subscriber shared their copy with).

This is one of the fun facts in Douglas Tirola’s breezy documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. After a perfunctory preface about roots in the venerable Harvard Lampoon, Tirola devotes most of his film profiling the magazine’s original gang of editors and writers, which included Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, Chris Miller, Tony Hendra, and (future screenwriter/film director) John Hughes.

He does a nice job of tracing how the magazine’s subversive mashup of highbrow Ivy League irony and lowbrow frat boy vulgarity begat Saturday Night Live (many of that show’s first batch of writers and performers were recruited from Lampoon’s magazine, LPs and stage productions), which in turn begat Animal House; precipitating a paradigm shift in a generation’s comic id that resonates to this day. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on your sense of humor.

I’m a cork on the ocean: Love and Mercy ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2015)

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What is it with talented musical families and evil, abusive fathers? When you read about how Joe Jackson mistreated his children as they were growing up, it’s no wonder that Michael (and a couple siblings) ended up as  freak shows. Then there’s Murray Wilson, father of Beach Boys Brian, Carl and Dennis. Like Joe, Murray intuited his children’s gifts early on. Undoubtedly, both sensed the potential gold mine . Giving both dads the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they initially guided their children’s careers in the spirit of parental mentoring, but as we know, money is the root of all evil.

It’s possible that genius envy played a role as well. There’s a very revealing scene in Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. The year is 1966, and Brian (Paul Dano) is in the process of working out a song cycle that will soon coalesce into the now-legendary Pet Sounds album. He sits at a piano in front of his father (Bill Camp) and bangs out a rudimentary version of a new song that he’s jazzed about. Even at this early stage, it’s beautiful, inspired, and (with the gift of hindsight) we of course recognize it right away. Murray pisses all over it. No hit potential, dumb lyrics. The title? “God Only Knows”.

History did eventually prove Murray to be an ass, but Brian’s famously complex “issues” actually stemmed from a combination of factors, aside from the open derision from Dear Old Dad. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head eventually led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series). Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most amazing, innovative work of his career.

This particular period (1966-1967) is recreated by Pohlad with uncanny verisimilitude, especially in the “fly on the wall” depictions of the Pet Sounds sessions (these scenes reveal the core essence of the musical creative process like no other film I’ve seen since Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil). Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance is a revelation, capturing the duality of Brian the troubled genius and Brian the sweet man-child to a tee.

If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with Brian’s bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). Landy (played here with full-throttled “don’t you love to hate me?” aplomb by Paul Giamatti) was the therapist/life coach who “treated” Brian for his mental problems by essentially putting him under house arrest (and very heavy medication) for the better part of a decade (and charging his star patient a cool half mil a year for the privilege of his services). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack.

It may require some viewers a little time and patience before accepting Cusack as Brian; especially since he does not bear the same (almost eerie) physical resemblance, but once you do, it won’t be the distraction that you may initially fear it to be. And there is a good reason for that…Cusack has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Also, if you have seen the “real” Brian in interviews, you will appreciate Cusack’s turn all the more; he has really done his observational homework. Like all the best actors do, Cusack has picked up on the essential nuances, more than making up for his relative lack of physical resemblance. His Brian is sweet, touching and heartbreaking all at once.

Elizabeth Banks is wonderful here as well, as Melinda, who meets (latter-day) Brian when he strolls into the Cadillac dealership where she works, then eventually becomes his significant other (she was the first “outsider” to glean that Dr. Landy’s Svengali-like control of Brian’s life was doing him more harm than good). There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I always try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years. The matinee I attended had an audience of approximately five (and it was opening weekend), so I would recommend you rush out to see it before it gets eaten by a dinosaur.