Category Archives: Fantasy

In Dreams: Farewell, Ursula K. Le Guin

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2018)

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Geek flags at half-staff. Earlier today, we learned of the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin, sci-fi/fantasy writer extraordinaire. She was one of the last of a classic generation…Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury. She once said: “I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.” It’s a huge loss. My favorite film adaptation of a Le Guin story is “The Lathe of Heaven”, which I wrote about a few years back…

(This review originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo, July 21, 2007)

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One of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films is The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV” sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy.

Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

Lazyhazycrazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 12, 2017)

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Since we’ve officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but it’s equally compelling when cameras turn away from the artists and linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t fully come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel). It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Mid-August Lunch-This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorra). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

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Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are seldom mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this all leads to amusing complications.

Love in all of its guises is represented by a bevy of richly-drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

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Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a roller coaster of emotions with an aplomb that belies their age and experience at that stage of their careers. Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

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Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile genre entry.

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A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). So a friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with Rohmer, this is as good a place as any to start.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. But don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry. In fact, even a neophyte should glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will recognize  themselves at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being only human.

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Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”? The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

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3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

SIFF 2017: Revolting Rhymes ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Based on Roald Dahl’s imaginatively reinvented mashups of classic fairy tales, this film combines two 35-minute BBC 1 shorts into a feature-length. German co-directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer obviously had a good time making this animated network narrative that cleverly cross-pollinates Little Red Riding Hood with Snow White and Cinderella with Jack and the Beanstalk. None other than the Big Bad Wolf is on hand to play the Cryptkeeper who ties the threads together. Great voice work by Dominic West, Rob Brydon, Gemma Chan, and others. BTW, it is not for young kids!

Wake up and dream: The Red Turtle *** & Your Name ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2017)

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In my 2010 review of a lovely, little-seen film from Mexico called Alamar, I wrote:

To say that “nothing happens” in Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s leisurely paced cinematic tone-poem, set against the backdrop of Mexico’s intoxicating Banco Chinchorro, is to deny that the rhythm of life has a pulse. […]. If you can’t wait for it to end so you can turn your phone back on and check all those “important” messages, I suspect that the film’s message, telegraphed in the sunlit shimmer of a crystalline coral reef, or in the light of love on a father’s face as he watches his son slowly drift off to sleep, is destined to never get through to you anyway.

I had a similar takeaway from The Red Turtle, the latest offering by Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli. Writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously rendered anime is a minimally-scripted paella made from equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Irish selkie/Venus-Aphrodite mythology, and, uh, the Book of Genesis.

Set in an indeterminate time period (educated guess: early-to-mid 19th Century), the tale centers on a shipwrecked (sailor? explorer? pirate? adventurer?) who gets washed up onto the beach of a tiny (Pacific?) island. An exploration of his new environs quickly gives indication that, save the birds, crabs, and baby sea turtles, he is completely, utterly, alone.

Whether or not he is destined to remain by his lonesome in a cruel and unfeeling universe will be revealed to you by the second act; in the interest of avoiding spoilers, all I am prepared to divulge beyond this point of the narrative is that yes – a red turtle is involved.

As I inferred earlier, de Wit’s film has a dearth of narrative and/or character development, but the stunning visuals help make up the deficit (in my experience, Studio Ghibli never fails to deliver the eye candy). Still, some viewers may find it tough going by the time the story enters its more conventional 3rd act, which does lean toward cliché.

The key to enjoying this film (should that be your wont) is to go in with no expectations, and get lost in its beauty; because (if I may again paraphrase from my Alamar review) “…analogous to the complex and delicate eco-system that sustains the reef, there is more going on just beneath the surface than meets the eye.” Because after all, as the great Jacques Cousteau cautioned… “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

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I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies over the years (OK, “decades” may be more apropos), but it’s been quite a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy, Your Name.  Adapted by the director from his own novel, Shinkai’s film has the distinction of being Japan’s most popular and largest-grossing anime (in-country) to not originate from the Studio Ghibli hit factory (the film’s limited U.S. run is being distributed by Funimation Films).

The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities.

Mitsuha, who was raised to be a modest country girl with traditional Japanese values, is consumed by a kind of urban wanderlust; eager to finish high school so she can escape her small town and break out on her own to seek adventure and excitement in Tokyo. Taki, on the other hand, takes his metropolitan lifestyle for granted, and plans on becoming an architect, or perhaps an artist. Mitsuha and Taki are both socially awkward.

You know where this is going, don’t you? There’s something else that Mitsuha and Taki are sharing. They’ve both been having very strange dreams as of late; Taki wakes up one morning, and it seems he’s still dreaming…because his physiology is decidedly female, and he’s living in a rural mountain village where people insist on calling him “Mitsuha” through the course of an eventful day at an unfamiliar high school. “She” goes to bed.

The next time Taki awakens, he’s Taki again (anatomy checks out correctly, much to his relief). However, everyone is giving him funny looks at school. His friends are asking him if he’s OK…and wondering why he was acting so weird the day before.

Once we next get to watch Mitsuha having a similar experience (she “dreams” she is a boy named Taki, lives in Tokyo, and spends an equally unsettling day at an unfamiliar high school), we start to put 2 + 2 together. These two are together…but not altogether. Together apart?

WTF is going on with these two? I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.

So I won’t. Because, a). I can’t afford to lose a reader, and b). It might spoil your fun. Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, metaphysical sci-fi, mystery, coming-of-age tale, humor, and even old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes…I laughed, and I cried). It’s a visual feast as well; the animation is outstanding. It’s not playing at a lot of theaters, so if it pops up in your neck of the woods, do not pass up an opportunity to catch it on the big screen.

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)

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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.

I got yer top 10 right heah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2015)

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‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2015. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I’ve been able to cover since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every release (that pesky 9-5 gig keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:

Chappie– This is the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). While there are echoes here of nearly every “AI-goes-awry” cautionary tale since Metropolis (plus a large orange soda), through their creation of the eponymous character, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell nonetheless manage to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. Once you’ve cut through all the bombast and the obligatory action tropes in the narrative, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, even timeless kind of resonance. [Full review]

Fassbinder: Love without Demands– By the time he died at age 37 in 1982, the iconoclastic German director-screenwriter-actor (and producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc.) Rainier Werner Fassbinder had churned out 40 feature films, a couple dozen stage plays, 2 major television film series, and an assortment of video productions, radio plays and short films. Mind you, this was over a 15-year period. Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen does an amazing job of tying together the prevalent themes in Fassbinder’s work with the personal and psychological motivations that fueled this indefatigable drive to create, to provoke, and to challenge the status quo. [Full review]

An Italian Name– If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt two subgenres I have dubbed The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures. This breezy 94 minute social satire plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. I was also blissfully unaware that it was first adapted as a 2012 French film, so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. [Full review]

Liza, the Fox Fairy– If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. [Full review]

Love and Mercy– Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Actually, there are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’ n’ roll biopics I’ve seen in years. [Full review]

A Pigeon sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence– Full disclosure…I initially gave this film an appraisal that was ambivalent at best. But as I have said in the past, I reserve the right to occasionally change my mind; and since I’ve had some time now to sit on my branch and reflect, I’ve decided it belongs on this list. That doesn’t mean that I’m any closer to understanding what the fuck this movie is “about” any more so than previous. How do I summarize a film cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes sharing little in common save for the fact that they share little in common…why bother? [Full review]

Song of the Sea– Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells with another lovely animated take on Irish folklore, this one steeped in “selkie” mythology. Moore has fashioned a family-friendly entertainment that feels like an instant classic; imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernable warmth in Moore’s skilled use of hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days. [Full review]

Tangerines– This Estonian-Georgian production was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, who  sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 90s. While there are touchstones like La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, the film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  [Full review]

Trumbo– One could draw many historical parallels with the present from this fact-based drama by director Jay Roach, which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms). Bryan Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era Hunter S. Thompson. While not as emotionally resonant as the thematically similar 1976 film The Front, Trumbo happily shares a like purpose, by providing something we need right now…a Rocky for liberals. [Full review]

When Marnie Was There– Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It’s gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling. [Full review]

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And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

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?

Yabba dabba doo-doo: Jurassic World *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Jurassic World: What could possibly go wrong?

Velociraptors make for great jumbo-sized bloodhounds. Who knew? That’s but one of the startling revelations in Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow’s remake of Cool Hand Luke. What was that he said? Cool Hand Luke? Is the OP off his fucking meds, or what?!

No, seriously. Hear me out.

Let’s get the synopsis out of the way first. It’s been 22 years since that little “accident” on Isla Nublar. If you’re unacquainted with 1993’s Jurassic Park, here’s the recap: test-tube dinosaurs, humans fleeing, screaming…then munching, crunching, blood, viscera, the end (if you also missed Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, see: recap for Jurassic Park).

And if you think that concerned parties have yet to grasp the central lesson (i.e., that placing giant, lizard-brained predators and snack-sized bipeds into close proximity only ends in tears)-you would be…correct. Yes, “they” have now created a massive theme park (based on Sea World), and are charging people an admission for the privilege of putting themselves into close proximity with giant, lizard-brained predators.

An adorable moppet with a cabbage patch head (Ty Simpkins) and his sullen teenage sibling (Nick Robinson) travel to Jurassic World sans Mom and Dad, who are entrusting them into the care of their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is head of operations. She in turn entrusts the boys to her P.A. (thus ensuring that they will soon be in life-threatening peril, like all the young ‘uns in all the previous franchise entries). So much for the “plot”.

But that’s not important right now…let’s get back to my Cool Hand Luke theory.

We can all agree that the idea of positioning T. Rex as the park’s alpha heavy is like, so last millennium, right? No worries, because those ingenious InGen scientists (not unlike the director and his co-screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly) are smart enough to know that if you wanna repackage the same old shit in a different wrapper and fill those seats with asses, you’ve gotta make it bigger…and badder. So they’ve taken the DNA from a T. Rex, a velociraptor, a cuttlefish and added…I don’t know, some Black & Decker chainsaw parts…tossed them into a Bass-O-Matic and set it to “frappe”. Out pops Godzilla on steroids, a mega-predator they dub the Indominus Rex.

But I prefer to call him “Luke”.

Because you see, that ol’ Luke, they got him in a special pen…but they ain’t no prison can hold him, ‘cause he’s a wild, beautiful thing. He’s a crazy handful of nuthin’. And once he claws his way out and starts eatin’ them eggs, look out (I’ll tell ya, my boy can eat fifty of them brachiosaurus eggs, and still have ‘nuff room left for chokin’ down a platoon of park security officers, weapons ‘n’ all).

Luke escapes, and who do they send to track him down? Dog Boy, of course (played here by Chris Pratt) and his faithful bloodhounds (played here by a pack of velociraptors). Hell, one of them velociraptor bloodhound dawgies is even named “Blue”! I mean, who can forget Dog Boy’s mournful lamentation: “Look, Cap’n, look what he done to Blue. He’s dead…he run himself plum to death.” Poor ol’ Blue. He was a good ‘raptor…way he used to wag that lil’ tensile tail.

That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. Getting half-serious for a moment, I’m giving the film an extra ½ star for the impressive creature effects; but frankly that’s about all it has going for it. For the life of me, all I can remember (and I just saw it this past Tuesday) is donning the 3-D glasses, watching dinosaurs eat people, and my friend marveling throughout at what has to be a new Guinness record for product placement. Memorable quotes? Can’t remember. Specific standout performances? Can’t remember. Plot points? Can’t recall more than one or two. And I wasn’t even high. Wish I had been.

SIFF 2015: Liza, the Fox Fairy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?). Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).