Category Archives: Male Bonding

SIFF 2017: Godspeed **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

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).