Category Archives: Historical drama

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall. While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius. With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but interestingly it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and a Golden Globe win) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film won a 2nd Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him. While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation. Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation; if pressed, this is my favorite Hurt performance. While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Forward, into the past: A timely reissue of Peter Watkins’ Culloden ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 26, 2016)

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“For some time, [United Kingdom] constitutional nerds such as myself used to float this kind of nightmare scenario, in which one or more parts of the U.K such as Northern Ireland or Scotland [votes to stay in the E.U.], while England, being the largest group [votes to leave the E.U.]…basically those other parts of the U.K. are out-voted. […] Now this has actually happened; this isn’t a nightmare scenario any longer, it’s the reality.”

– Andrew Blick, lecturer in politics and contemporary history (from an interview on CNN, June 24, 2016).

There’s been a substantial amount of speculation among the chattering class over the last 36 hours regarding a possible “contagion effect” on the nations who remain allegiant to the European Union, following the U.K.’s voter-mandated breakaway this past Thursday.

While no one with a modicum of sense and/or logic is expecting World War III to break out next week as a result of the “Brexit” referendum decision, there remain a number of compelling historical reasons why the possibility of profound political and socioeconomic instability in Europe down the road is concerning to those who keep track of such things.

For a continent that encompasses a relatively modest 3,930,000 square miles altogether (for perspective, the United States by itself is 3,806,000 square miles in size), Europe has a densely complex history of political volatility, avarice-driven disputes, willful military aggression and generations-spanning (ruling) family squabbles that boggles the mind.

I’m not saying we haven’t gotten our own hair mussed once or twice here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A; after all, 620,000 people died in the Civil War. That said, 17 million people died in World War I, and an estimated 60 million souls slipped the surly bonds of Earth in the course of World War II. Yes, those were “world” wars, but volatility in Europe was the primary impetus. I guess what I’m saying is, the fact that we have known the existence of a unified Europe in our lifetimes is a blessing that we have taken for granted.

However, as implied by the quote at the top of the post, what makes the Brexit decision even more fascinating to me is the possibility of the U.K. itself splintering apart eventually as a result. Which in effect would be history repeating itself, particularly in the case of Scotland, which voted almost overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. In fact, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced a plan to keep Scotland in the E.U., as well as noting that drafts are in the works for legislation proposing another vote on Scottish independence from the U.K. (there was one in 2014).

To say that the history between England and Scotland is a “bloody” one would not be overstatement. Consider a particularly nasty bit of business generally referred to as the “Jacobite Uprising” or “The Forty-five Rebellion” (1745-1746). Depending on which historian you’re reading, the conflict was either a clan war betwixt Scottish lowlanders and highlanders, a religious civil war, or a Scottish war of independence against England. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to split the difference and call it “all of the above”.

The culmination of the conflict occurred on April 16, 1745 with the Battle of Culloden:

(from The National Trust for Scotland website)

Towards one o’clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began.

Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled.

Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one.

Culloden was not only “an exceptionally bloody” battle, but holds distinction as the last such pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Although the slaughter did not stop there:

(from The New World Encyclopedia website)

After their victory, Cumberland ordered his men to execute all the Jacobite wounded and prisoners, an act by which he was known afterwards as “the Butcher.” Certain higher-ranking prisoners did survive to be tried and executed later in Inverness. […]

Immediately after the battle, Cumberland rode into Inverness, his drawn sword still covered in blood, a symbolic and menacing gesture. The following day, the slaughter continued, when patrols were sent back to the battlefield to kill any survivors; contemporary sources indicate that about 70 more Jacobites were killed as a result…

[…] 3,470 Jacobites, supporters, and others were taken prisoner in the aftermath of Culloden, with 120 of them being executed and 88 dying in prison; 936 transported to the colonies, and 222 more “banished.” While many were eventually released, the fate of nearly 700 is unknown.

The Rebellion left a profound cultural impact on Scotland as well. From the same article:

[The ’45 Rebellion] had enormous psychological impact upon the Highland Scots, and severe civil penalties thereafter (for example, it became a criminal offense to wear tartan plaid). What followed can be described as cultural vandalism, with the destruction of a way of life that many had found meaningful, giving them a sense of identity and kinship.

So how does this all tie in with the Brexit vote? In a well-written 2011 Daily Kos piece inspired by the (then) 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, OP OllieGarky notes:

Cameron and Thatcher’s recent ruthlessness towards Scottish public institutions is nothing new. It is a pale relic of previous attempts to rebuild Scotland into a properly British province, according to whatever fashion the current leaders took. […]

Culloden and its aftermath is an emotional issue for the Scottish Diaspora. Depending on your definition, how you include or exclude individuals from the Diaspora, the Diaspora outnumbers the population of Scotland by no less than 12 to one. This loss of people has been disastrous for Scotland in recent years, leading to the rise of the Scottish National Party. […]

The Scottish Nationalists are Nationalists in name only. They don’t espouse any of the ethnocentric bile typical of traditional Nationalist groups like the BNP, or White Nationalists in the US. Indeed, the music of Scottish Nationalism is disgusted with the ethnocentric ideas that are themselves an integral part of the BNP’s British Nationalism, or its predecessor the National Front’s English Nationalism.

It’s no secret that there was an undercurrent of anti-immigrant nativism streaking through rhetoric spouted by some of the high profile spokespersons in the “leave the E.U.” camp.

Which (finally) brings us to writer-director Peter Watkins’ largely forgotten, yet somewhat groundbreaking made-for BBC-TV docudrama from 1964 entitled Culloden. The film has been newly remastered for a beautifully-transferred “two-fer” (Region “B” only) Blu-ray release from BFI that also includes Watkins’ more well-known (and controversial) 1965 BBC docudrama The War Game (****), which is an unblinking, startlingly realistic envisioning of the after-effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Kent.

Truth be told, the primary reason I ordered the set was to snag a copy of The War Game; I was previously unaware of Culloden (it never aired outside of the U.K., unlike The War Game, which gained its higher profile from international cinematic distribution in 1966, subsequently earning it an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature back in 1967).

It is by pure kismet that I just happened to view Culloden for the first time about 2 weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; otherwise I likely never would have connected this relatively obscure battle that took place 270 years ago with the results of the Brexit referendum just this past Thursday. At any rate, I was happy to discover this gem, which is very much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. While he shares Kubrick’s eye for detail and neorealist capture of the horror of battle, Watkins does him one better:

(From David Archibald’s essay, written for the companion booklet to the BFI Blu-ray)

“Culloden” emerged at the high point in British television. In 1956 Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble toured Britain for the first time, and the company’s non-Aristotelian, distanciation techniques, which attempted to highlight theater’s constructed nature and, in turn, politicize the spectator, were becoming increasingly popular among leftist theater-makers […]

The experimental and constructed nature of [“Culloden”] is all-too apparent: on-location shooting; fourth-wall breaking direct address to the camera; repeated, shaky camera work; tight close-ups on the protagonists’ faces and the presence of a narrator who describes events as if reporting on the daily news.

The anachronistic conceit that Watkins employs cannily presages the advent of the “mockumentary” (although you will discover nothing “funny” is going on in the course of the film’s 69 minutes). Yet there is nothing “gimmicky” about it, in fact, the overall effect is quite powerful and involving. As Archibald goes on to conclude in his essay:

Yet this is not simply an adaptation of [John Prebbles’ eponymous 1962 book] but stands in its own right as a legitimate historical representation of an important chapter in Scottish and British history. […]

[Peter Watkins] never returned to television [following “The War Game” in 1965], but he leaves behind a brace of innovative yet accessible, provocative yet popular documentaries, which remain strikingly fresh and politically potent.

Here are 2 things I know to be true: Culloden is strikingly fresh. And history is cyclical.

 

(BFI’s Blu-ray is Region “B”; it requires a region-free player for viewing!)

Shaker meets Quaker: Elvis & Nixon **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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While the line dividing politics from show-biz has always been tenuous, the White House meeting between Elvis Aaron Presley and Richard Milhous Nixon in 1970 remains one of the more surreal moments in United States presidential history. From Smithsonian.com:

Around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who’d just arrived from Memphis. Arrayed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, Elvis came bearing a gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case that Elvis had plucked off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion.

Which the Secret Service confiscated before Krogh escorted Elvis—without his entourage—to meet Nixon.

“When he first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck,” Krogh recalls, “but he quickly warmed to the situation.”

While White House photographer Ollie Atkins snapped photographs, the president and the King shook hands. Then Elvis showed off his police badges.

Nixon’s famous taping system had not yet been installed, so the conversation wasn’t recorded. But Krogh took notes: “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest.”

“I’m on your side,” Elvis told Nixon, adding that he’d been studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing. Then he asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

“Can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked Krogh.

Krogh said he could, and Nixon ordered it done.

Elvis was ecstatic. “In a surprising, spontaneous gesture,” Krogh wrote, Elvis “put his left arm around the President and hugged him.”

I’ll bet you thought E was going to say, “Thank ya, sir…thankyahveramuch.” Amirite?

He very well may have, but since there is no verbatim transcript, it’s up for conjecture. Which brings us to Liza Johnson’s featherweight yet passably entertaining Elvis & Nixon.

Co-writers Joey Sagal (who, interestingly, played an Elvis-like character for the premiere run of Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile), Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes frame their screenplay with the most oft-recounted anecdotal lore surrounding the meet, shored up by a fair amount of creative license. Of course, this device (nowadays referred to as “fan fiction”) is nothing new. There have been a number of such explorations done on both figures; at least one featuring them together (the 1997 TV film Elvis Meets Nixon).

What makes this romp eminently watchable are its two leads: Michael Shannon (as Elvis) and Kevin Spacey (as Nixon). While this is far from a career highlight for either, they both have the chops to rise above the uneven script and carry the day. It does take a bit of acclimation to accept the hulking Shannon as Elvis; but he is subtle enough as a character actor to convincingly transform himself into The King, despite the fact that has no physical resemblance to his real-life counterpart (neither does Spacey, for that matter, but he utilizes his gift for voice mimicry to really capture Nixon to a tee).

The film is  farcical in tone, but there are brief flashes of pathos. In a scene recalling De Niro’s “who am I?” dressing room soliloquy in Raging Bull, Shannon gazes into a mirror and laments about how disassociated he feels from “Elvis” the legend. It’s a genuinely touching moment. Spacey gets to flex his instrument in a monologue where he reflects to Elvis on their commonalities; how both men rose up from humble roots to achieve greatness (yes, I know…depends on how you define “greatness”).

It’s based on historical fact, but not don’t expect any new revelations. You may forget what you’ve just watched by the time you get back to your car, but political junkies will get some laughs. There are stretches where the film threatens to morph into a glorified SNL sketch, but at a short running time of 87 minutes, it’s over before you know it. If only I could say the same for the 2016 election…

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Wolves, bison & bears…oh my: The Revenant ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)

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“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”

-from Apocalypse Now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.

Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.

The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition. After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).

His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks. The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.

What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout). Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey. In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film evoked that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a state-funded quartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review). Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”

The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries). I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries). What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.

Gall Street: The Big Short ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In my 2010 review of the documentary Inside Job, I wrote:

I have good news and bad news about Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Remember 2008? That financial crisis thingie? Well, it’s time to dust off the pitchfork. Good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph have (somehow) adapted Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short into an outstanding comedy-drama that doubles as an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system. The bad news…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we (meaning your everyday, average hard-working American taxpayer) stood by, completely unsuspecting and blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

However, what differentiates McKay’s film from the aforementioned documentary is its surprisingly effervescent candy-coating, which helps the medicine go down. For example, he sprinkles his narrative with helpful, interstitial tutorials that annotate some of the financial vernacular that gets tossed about. And as far as helpful, interstitial tutorials go, one could do worse than watching lovely Australian actress Margot Robbie take a bubble bath as she delivers an authoritative dissertation as to how junk bonds are created.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other elements that help the film work as beautifully as it does; for one the impressive number of A-list cast members (shocking, when you consider the subject matter wouldn’t likely strike your typical Hollywood green-lighter to be as bankable as, let’s say…a story that is set in a galaxy far, far, away).

The narrative has several threads, encircling a quirky, Oscar-baiting turn by Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager (and possible Asperger’s sufferer) who appears to be a savant with numbers and financial trend spotting. He is one of the first to not only spot the needle heading for the “bubble”, but to figure out how investors, armed with such foreknowledge (and bereft of conscience) could become incredibly filthy rich.

Initially of course, everyone thinks he’s nuts. But as word gets around that the big banks (through oversight and pure greed) may have created an Achilles heel for themselves that could be exploited by a savvy few (at the expense of, oh I don’t know…the rest of us?) a few other players enter the story (played with equal aplomb by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt). What makes these four primary characters compelling is that while each has disparate motivations, they all share one trait: thinking outside of the box.

McKay cleverly employs a variation of the network narrative; all of the primary characters may not literally cross paths, yet once all is said and done, you come to understand how each of them represents (if I may extrapolate on Mr. Taibbi’s cephalopod theme) a mutually exclusive tentacle of that great vampire squid, jamming and sucking.

Ew. I think that’s the most disgusting sentence I’ve ever written. Anyway…see this film!

Blu-ray reissue: Breaker Morant ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Breaker Morant– The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Few films have conveyed the madness of war more succinctly than Bruce Bereford’s moving 1980 drama. Based on a true story, it recounts the courts martial of three Australian officers (Edward Woodard, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-gerald) by their British higher-ups during the Boer War. The three are accused of shooting enemy prisoners (even though they did so under orders from superior officers). They are hastily assigned a military lawyer (a fellow Australian) with no previous experience in criminal defense (Jack Thompson, in a star-making performance), who surprises even himself with his passion and resourcefulness in the face of stacked odds. Marvelously acted and tightly directed, with an intelligent script by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens (from Kenneth G. Ross’ play). It’s a perfect film in every way.

Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer and extras that lend deeper historical context.

By any other name: Trumbo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2015)

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Chris Hayes shared this Harry Truman quote on his MSNBC show, All In the other day:

 When we have these fits of hysteria, we are like the person who has a fit of nerves in public; when he recovers, he is very much ashamed…and so are we as a nation when sanity returns.

 –from Years of Trial and Hope, Volume 2

Hayes was doing a piece on the current political backlash and fear mongering (mostly from the Right) against Syrian immigrants in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. That quote from President Truman’s memoirs, Hayes pointed out, referred to the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s; his point being that, (as the French always say) plus ca change

Speaking of “timely”, one could draw many historical parallels with the present from Trumbo, a 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 nearly a decade of writing scripts under various pseudonyms).

The film begins in 1947, the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its initial “investigation” into whether or not Hollywood filmmakers were sneaking Communist propaganda into films; and if so, who was responsible. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other members of the industry (now immortalized as “The Hollywood Ten”) were summoned. All ten refused to cooperate. Their reward for standing on their convictions was…contempt convictions. This precipitated their inductions as premier members of the infamous blacklist (which, if one were to ask the studio suits that did the hiring, never officially existed). Trumbo ended up doing eleven months in the pen. The bulk of the film recounts his long, hard-won road to redemption.

Despite the somewhat rote narrative choices, I’m heartily recommending this film, for a couple reasons. First, for the performances. 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 prototype for Hunter S. Thompson (especially once he dons his dark glasses). He is ably supported by a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren (as odious gossip columnist/Red-baiter Hedda Hopper) Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s wife), Louis C.K. (his finest dramatic performance to date), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). John Goodman (as a boisterous and colorful low-budget film producer who is suspiciously reminiscent of the shlockmeister he played in Matinee) and Christian Berkel (as larger-than-life Austrian director, Otto Preminger) make the most of their small roles.

Screenwriter John McNamara (who adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo) plays it by-the-numbers; with broadly delineated heroes and villains (Trumbo himself conceded years later that there was “courage and cowardice […] good and bad on both sides”). While not as emotionally resonant as Martin Ritt’s similar 1976 dramedy, The Front (it’s tough to beat those end credit reveals that key members of that film’s cast and crew actually were victims of the blacklist), Roach’s film happily shares a like purpose; it provides something we need right now, more than ever…a Rocky for liberals.

Start the revolution without me: The Liberator **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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The stats on democratic revolutionary Simon Bolivar are pretty impressive. By the time he died at age 47 in 1830, he had waged over 100 battles against the Spanish throughout Central and South America, liberating and establishing the united territory of Gran Columbia (an area stretching south from the modern nations of Panama at one end and Peru at the other). He’s highly revered in Latin America to this day (hell, they even named Bolivia after him).

I wish I could say the same about Alberto Arvelo’s slickly produced yet cloyingly idealized biopic, The Liberator. It’s too bad, because charismatic leading man Edgar Ramirez gives it his best shot (and looks convincingly dashing wearing a waistcoat and wielding a saber), but Timothy J. Sexton’s script takes a Cliff’s Notes approach that skimps on Bolivar’s motivations.

What made him decide to give up his life as a wealthy country gentleman (who grew up on a family plantation maintained by slave labor, no less) and transform into “El Libertador“, freeing South America from the Spanish Empire? The epiphany is implied, but never fully explained; from watching the film, he may as well be Bruce Wayne donning a cape and transforming into Batman every night…and that’s all we need to know. Rousing battle scenes and lush period details are fine and dandy, but an historical epic ultimately requires some innate sense of history.

Vermeer to eternity: The Monuments Men ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2014)

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Saviors of the lost art: Clooney & co. in The Monuments Men

My late Uncle Irv was an even-keeled man; kindhearted, easy going, and always up for a good laugh over coffee and a bagel. In all the years I knew him, I have no particular memories of ever seeing him angry or vitriolic. Except for one occasion.

A few years before he passed, he took me aside and showed me his modest collection of personal WW2 memorabilia. I knew that he had flown  bombing missions over Germany as a navigator on a B-17; but I had never pressed him for details. He was showing me the weathered photographs, uniform patches, mission plans and such, when he paused and quietly hissed, “Those fuckin’ Nazis.” It was so out-of-character that it took me aback for a moment. But I got it. He and I lost  many of our mutual relatives in the concentration camps.

And when it comes to war movies, we all “get it” why Nazis are depicted as the ultimate villains. Because they were. Are. Will remain…until the end of recorded time. And you would think by now, Hollywood would have collated and dramatized all the empirical data that has led to a general consensus among decent human beings that the Third Reich was, overall, a terrible idea.

Believe it not, however, there are yet additional historically documented reasons why the Nazis are the ultimate villains (as if the mass genocide, the incursions and the wanton destruction wasn’t enough). Specifically, they looted. And they hoarded. Big time. Especially when it came to Europe’s treasure trove of great art.

Toward the end of the war, thanks to Hitler’s scorched earth directives, countless sculptures and paintings by (then) contemporary artists (like Picasso) were destroyed for not being “collectible” enough (Worst. Art. Critics. Ever.) Luckily, there was a U.S. Cavalry (of sorts) that rode in and saved the day.

The story of this little-known mission to rescue Europe’s plundered art and return it to its rightful owners has been dramatized in a  The Monuments Men. Directed by George Clooney, with a script he adapted with his  Grant Heslov from a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the story takes place during the waning days of the war as the Allies close in on Germany from all fronts.

Clooney casts himself as museum curator Frank Stokes, assigned by FDR to hand-pick a team of qualified experts to take a crash-course in basic training and then head to the front with two directives: 1) Advise the advancing Allies about known locations containing renowned art so it is not inadvertently destroyed, and 2) Pinpoint the Nazi stashes. The resultant platoon of not-quite-ready-for-combat players is like The Dirty Dozen…with art degrees.

Initially, while I was watching the obligatory “We’re getting the band back together!” montage, I thought “Please, don’t let this be an in-jokey ancillary to the Ocean’s Eleven franchise” (especially when I noted that Matt Damon was on board) but those fears were dissipated as I got pulled into the story. In fact, Clooney and Heslov have fashioned a highly entertaining old-school WW2 adventure yarn, in the tradition of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone.

Granted, you’re not going to see this team of art historians and professors scaling cliffs and blowing stuff up real good, but this is nonetheless an absorbing tale of courage and personal sacrifice, topped off by a fine ensemble including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville (channeling Jack Hawkins). Look for a cameo by Clooney’s dad Nick. Alexandre Desplat’s rousing score keeps things rolling along.

It’s refreshing to see a WW2 angle that hasn’t been done to death. The only previous example I can think of is John Frankenheimer’s  1964 drama The Train (also set in 1944, it stars Burt Lancaster as a railroad stationmaster recruited by the French Resistance to prevent a trainload of stolen French masterpieces from reaching Germany). It’s also refreshing to see a true rarity these days: an unabashedly patriotic “rah-rah for the good guys” war movie that doesn’t ultimately involve Navy Seals blowing someone’s shit away.

When someone is trying to take over the world (pretty much Hitler’s goal), there are many things at stake. The preservation of innocent lives, of course is paramount, and the preservation of freedom. But the preservation of culture is crucial as well. As Clooney’s character says in the film “[Art] is our history. It is not to be stolen or destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.” And worth fighting and dying for? I’ll bet if my Uncle Irv was here, he would say, “Yes.”