Category Archives: Male Bonding

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.

(Plays Monday, March 27 at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival)

Blu-ray reissue: One-Eyed Jacks ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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One-Eyed Jacks –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

 Marlon Brando only directed one film…but it’s a doozey. A “western” with numerous beach scenes and artful shots of crashing surf? That’s only a sampling of the unique touches in this off-beat 1961 drama (which began as a Stanley Kubrick project). It was widely panned, but has come to be anointed as a near-classic. It shares more commonalities with film noir than John Ford; not only in mood and atmosphere, but in its narrative (adapted by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham from Charles Nieder’s novel), which is a brooding tale of crime, obsession and revenge (which puts it in league with western noirs like Johnny Guitar and Day of the Outlaw).

Brando plays a suave bank robber who (unwittingly) takes the fall for his partner-in-crime/mentor (Karl Malden) after a botched heist. After doing hard time, Brando sets off in search of his old “friend”. The relationship between the two men is decidedly Oedipal (the Malden character is even given the helpful surname “Dad”). It’s one of Brando’s most charismatic performances (naturally, he gives himself plenty of choice close-ups), with some excellent support from Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, and Slim Pickens.

Criterion’s edition is a godsend for fans of the film, as it represents the first proper (and fully sanctioned) video transfer for home consumption. The film had fallen into the dreaded “public domain” for a number of years, resulting in a number of dubious DVD and Blu-ray editions all basically working with the same washed-out print. But now, with a restored print and beautiful 4K transfer, you can clearly see why DP Charles Lang’s work earned the film an Academy Award nomination (if not a win) for Best Cinematography. Extras include a Martin Scorsese introduction and several film essays.

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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 he doesn’t even bear a remote 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 essentially farcical in tone, but there are brief flashes of pathos. In a scene recalling De Niro’s “who am I?” dressing room soliloquy at the end of 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 exactly what I would call revelatory in any way. You may forget what you’ve just watched by the time you get back to your car, but political junkies will get a few good laughs along the way. There are stretches where the film threatens to morph into a glorified SNL sketch, but at a relatively 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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SIFF 2015: Diner **** (Archival presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives. All are slogging fitfully toward adulthood. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

SIFF 2014: The Servant **** (Archival Presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2014)

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One of my all-time favorite British dramas has received a restored print for its 50th anniversary. Joseph Losey’s brooding and decadent class-struggle allegory features the late great Dirk Bogarde in a note-perfect performance as the “manservant” hired by a snobby playboy (James Fox) to help him settle into his upscale London digs. It soon becomes apparent that this butler has a little more on the agenda than just polishing silverware and dusting the mantle. A very young Sara Miles is memorable as Bogarde’s “sister” who is hired as the maid. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s striking chiaroscuro composition and clever use of convex mirrors (which appear to “trap” the images of the principal characters) sustains a stifling, claustrophobic mood throughout. If you’re an aficionado of the 60’s British folk scene, keep your eyes peeled for a rare, unbilled glimpse of guitarist Davey Graham, in a scene where Fox walks into a coffeehouse. Harold Pinter’s screenplay was adapted from the novel by Robin Maugham.

 

Welcome to hell: Wake in Fright ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27, 2012)

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There’s a great old Temptations song that goes “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.” That would have made a perfect tag line for a rarely seen, one-of-a-kind 1971 drama called Wake in Fright. Restored in 2009 for a successful revival in Australia and considered a great lost film from that country’s “new wave” of the early to mid-1970s, it was directed by the eclectic Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun With Dick and Jane, North Dallas Forty), and is currently playing in select cities. As someone who is a huge fan of Aussie cinema from that era (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Walkabout, The Last Wave, etc.) I’m ashamed to admit that this film was under my radar until I was offered a DVD press screener a few weeks back (I don’t recall it ever showing on cable, and it’s never been available domestically on VHS or Region 1 DVD).

Here’s the film’s actual tag line: “Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.” That actually could work as a plot synopsis. Sort of a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and (speaking of the Australian new wave) Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, it’s a relatively simple tale about a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback.

Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba (the nearest town with an airport) where he will need to lodge for one night. At least that’s his plan. “The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the (too) friendly town cop (Chips Rafferty) who subtly bullies the teacher into getting  blotto. This kick starts a “lost weekend” that lasts for five days.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt that I  guarantee no film before or since matches for sheer audacity (a strange, lengthy disclaimer in the credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges viewers’ potential sensitivities).

That aside, this is a unique and compelling film; dripping with an atmosphere of dread and tempered by sharp, blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted the script from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD. One more thing. In all sincerity, I hope that no one is foolish enough to devise a drinking game based around the film, because somebody in the room will surely drop dead of alcohol poisoning long before credits roll.

VHS only: Heartbreakers ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2012)

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A hidden gem, this 1984 drama is one of my favorite “L.A. stories”. Director-writer Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about two 30-something pals who are both going through big cha-cha-cha-changes in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as a petulant man-child named Blue, a starving artist who specializes in quasi-pornographic, fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has recently dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso), while much more together financially (he’s a wildly successful super-Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad with the requisite lofty L.A. Basin view) is feeling equally unfulfilled emotionally. With his male model looks and shiny toys, it’s not like he has any problem with hookups; he just can’t seem to find The One (yes, I know- how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

However, just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking absolutely hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be sorely tested. Formulaic as it sounds, I’ve always really liked this film; I think it’s a sharply observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on TV’s Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (in her last film).

Wasted wonderland: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)

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I’ve decided not to bury the lead in my review of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D. So let’s get all of this out of the way first, shall we? Stereotypes about Asians, Ukrainians, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and the GLBT community abound. Santa Claus gets shot in the face. A baby ingests pot, coke and Ecstasy. Marijuana is celebrated for its recreational attributes. In a twisted homage to A Christmas Story, someone’s penis is stuck to frozen tree bark. And yet, there’s something so…good-natured about it all. And, I enjoyed the most belly laughs that I have had at a film so far this year. Sue me.

Back in 2004, a modestly budgeted stoner comedy, sporting a sophomoric title and starring two young unknowns, became an unexpected cult hit. Perhaps arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was that, sandwiched somewhere between the bong hits and assorted scatological references was an undercurrent of sharp socio-political commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are played by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively).

The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, officially turned their baked heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for Gen Y with the 2008 sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (my review).  Like its predecessor, it was crass and vulgar, yet still riotously funny (and oddly endearing, in a South Park kind of way). So, has the magic been recaptured in this latest installment?

I suppose that would depend on a little game of word association. If I say “Magic!”, and your immediate rejoinder is “Mushrooms!”, then I’d say you’ll probably enjoy the ride. The rest of you are strongly cautioned. For those in the latter group, I probably at least owe you a brief synopsis; the former already know that it’s not so much about the plot, as it is about the pot.

In the six years since their last misadventure, Harold (John Cho) has not only stepped away from the bong, but veered in the direction of responsible adulthood. He’s happily married, with a house in the ‘burbs and a Wall Street gig. In the meantime, Kumar (Kal Penn, who resigned from his White House position as Associate Director of Public Engagement to work on this film) has been on an opposite trajectory. He’s dropped out of med school, his girlfriend has left him, and he’s self-medicating with ganja (it gets funnier…seriously).

Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep Christmas week, and to make a short story even shorter, comic mayhem ensues. The duo (who have drifted apart) are reunited by necessity, scrambling to find a replacement before Harold’s father-in-law (a funny-scary Danny Trejo) discovers that his prized, personally-cultivated Christmas tree has gone up in flames (don’t ask). And yes, Neil Patrick Harris is back again for his third, erm, outing.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg co-wrote, but this time they’ve turned the helming chores over to Todd Strauss Schulson. This is the feature film debut for Schulson, who previously directed music videos and a handful of TV movies. I hope I’m not damning him with faint praise by saying that he has rendered the most visually creative Harold and Kumar entry yet, particularly with the clever use of 3-D. In fact, I think he has used it much more effectively here than Cameron did in Avatar. Go ahead…ask (“Are you high?!”). Maybe.

St. Elmo’s pyre: I Melt With You (no stars)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2011)

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Time-he flexes like a whore

Falls wanking to the floor

His trick is you and me, boy

-David Bowie

 It had to happen. Hey, it happens to all of us, if we live long enough. Remember the Brat Pack? It is currently their turn. Molly Ringwald could very well be having one as we speak. James Spader? I’m sure he’s had his, by now. Charlie Sheen? No question there. Oh yeah, I think you know what I’m talking about…the Midlife Meltdown. And, in all sincerity, I do hope that the rest of Generation X is weathering that storm with considerably more élan than the four not-so-gracefully aging protagonists at the heart of Mark Pellington’s navel-gazing, plug and play Sundance-y whingefest, I Melt With You.

Co-produced by Brat Pack chairman Rob Lowe and sporting a (mostly) 80s soundtrack that could have been hand-picked by John Hughes in Heaven, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (sans the laughs) and teeters precipitously between a Janovian therapy session, an AA meeting and an acting contest. Ready to play? Excellent. First, let’s meet our contestants.

Say hello to Jonathan (Lowe). He’s a self-loathing doctor, divorced father of one and a firm believer in getting high on your own supply. Please welcome Richard (Thomas Jane). He is a self-loathing English teacher, a failed writer (is that redundant?) and a lady-killer with a deep fear of commitment, who still parties like he’s 18. And over here we have the “responsible” member of our team, Ron (Jeremy Piven). He is a self-loathing Wall Streeter who is financially successful, has a wife and kids, and has been recently experiencing  anxiety attacks about a pending federal investigation of his investment firm . Finally, say “hey” to Tim (Christian McKay). He is the “sensitive guy”. He is of indeterminate career path and sexual orientation, but the one thing we’re certain of…he’s self-loathing.

The four have been pals since they were teenagers, and have stalwartly adhered to the tradition of an annual get-together since college graduation back in the mid-80s. “Get-together” is actually more of an operative term here; not too long after all four have converged at their rented Northern California beach house, it becomes evident that “bromantic bacchanal” might be a more apt descriptive. Our tipoff comes as soon as the doctor arrives, with an MD bag full of pharmaceutical goodies that would make Hunter Thompson break into a cold sweat. In fact, the guys dive into this heady cornucopia with such hasty and reckless abandon that you’re not sure if the inspiration here was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…or Leaving Las Vegas. But you know, boys will be boys, right?

And the director proceeds to pound that point home again and again, whilst setting out to show the French what a montage is all about. Music cue! Here we are, totally wasted, slam dancing to the D.K.’s! New music cue! Here we are, still totally wasted the next morning, nude body surfing while the Clash sing (wait for it) “Charlie Don’t Surf”! New music cue! Let’s roll down the sand dunes in a whimsical fashion to the strains of Adam Ant!

But as anyone who has been on a bender can tell you (or anyone who can read the title cards that helpfully offer “Day 1”, “Day 2”, etc.), at some point, you’ve gotta start coming down. That’s when the confessionals start. That’s when the conversation turns from “Dude! Remember that time that we…?” to “God, my life is shit!” It’s OK though, because dude, my life is shit, too. Let’s hug. “I love you, man”. I love you too, man (sob).

After a (very) long hour of such antics, the story takes an abrupt 180. Because you know what “they” say: It’s all fun and games, until someone loses an eye. Well, no one literally loses an eye, but one of our heroes (I’m not going to say who) goes a little “funny” in the head. You know what I mean, Dmitri? Anyway, he goes a little “funny”, and so he goes and does a silly thing. I can’t tell you exactly what he does, because that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say that his actions serve to stir up a Dark Secret from the Past (you’ve seen one of these in a flick before, right?) that involves all four of the friends. There’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world, but I can say no more, bon ami.

About this “180” in the second half. It’s tricksy and false. It is such a preposterous turn of events as to stagger belief (even within the parameters of an artistic medium in which the suspension of disbelief by the viewer is expected), and it stops the film dead in its tracks. Alas, nothing can save the movie once it has turned down this path; not even the formidable power of Carla Gugino’s amazing bee-stung lips (she plays the local sheriff, if it matters to you).

I can’t fault the cast; they are all fine actors, generally speaking. It’s just that I can’t decide which is more heavy-handed; Pellington’s direction or Glen Porter’s screenplay (I imagine it sounded like someone building a shed as he was banging it out). The sole thing that kept me going through the last act was the anticipation of hearing the jangly power pop strains of Modern English wafting through the air…and it never happened. No “Making love to you was never second best.”? No “hmm hmm hmm” sing-along?! Perhaps it would have been more apropos if Pellington had named his film after the Sex Pistols song he uses over both the opening and end credits:

“Pretty Vacant”.