Category Archives: Movie Movie

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of  grows on you.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

Sunrise, sunset: Mia Madre ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

–from the “Serenity Prayer”, by Reinhold Niebuhr

In my lukewarm 2012 review of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, I did give props to the Italian writer-director for “…humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.” I observed that Moretti’s protagonist was a (would-be) pontiff who “…elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity.”

Although Moretti’s latest effort is but the second film I have seen by this director, I’m sensing a theme. That’s because Mia Madre also centers on a protagonist who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility (in this case, a film director), and is depicted to be just as neurotic as anybody else. One could even say that a film set is also a “hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation” (of a sort). And indeed, over this cloistered, make-believe world, Margherita (Margherita Buy) holds sovereignty. But when it comes to her “real” life-not so much.

Every time she steps foot off her set, we sense Margherita’s power over her world diminishing. We see her literally gathering up the scant remnants of a failed relationship; dropping by her (soon to be) ex-lover’s apartment to collect some of her odds and ends. Her morose boyfriend (who, in a nice little directorial flourish, is sulking and listening to Leonard Cohen while she packs) gives her a desperate hug. “We know how things are,” she says a little unconvincingly, as she gently breaks away, “We’ve already decided.” To which he counters, “No…you’ve decided.”

Other aspects of her personal life are slipping through her fingers. She is stressed over the declining health of her hospitalized mother (Giulia Lazzarini), which in turn is exacerbating a gulf between Margherita and her teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini). The only rock she can seem to cling to in her destabilizing spin is her Zen-like brother Giovanni (director Moretti), who urges her to get a grip (he’s the only person in her orbit who intuits that she is headed for a crash).

We know Margherita is losing it, because she is having Fellini-esque, metaphor-laden daydreams suggesting as such (echoes of 8 ½). In fact, chaos (internal and external) seems to be a central theme. The fictional director’s film within the film is a polemic concerning factory workers in the midst of a tumultuous labor dispute; Margherita’s set itself gets thrown into disarray upon arrival of a mercurial American actor (played to the back row by the ever hammy John Turturro).

While Maretti’s meta-narrative of a harried director juggling creative and personal issues while slogging through a film shoot begs comparison to Truffaut’s Day for Night, he ultimately digs into more elemental themes, revealed incrementally. Maretti’s measured pacing may give you some pause, so be advised that it does require your attention (and patience) to fully appreciate the denouement: one word of dialog that not only packs an emotional wallop and beautifully ties the entire film together, but gives us all a reassuring moment of clarity amidst the chaos of adult life.

SIFF 2016: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I once noted in a review that “immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside someone else’s nightmare”. While I stand by that appraisal, I now have an inkling of the method behind the madness after watching Yves Montmayeur’s enlightening portrait of the director, who opens up about his life and art. A few collaborators (Udo Kei, Isabella Rossellini), and like-minded directors (John Waters, the Quay brothers) weigh in as well.

SIFF 2016: Uncle Howard **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Maybe I’m jaded from having seen one too many documentaries about the NYC arts scene; from the people (the Beats, Warhol’s Factory alums, the Velvets, Patti Smith, the punks, Mapplethorpe, Haring, Basquiat, the Club Kids, etc.) to the haunts (SoHo, TriBeBa, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB’s, Studio 54, etc.) it’s all been pretty well strip mined by filmmakers. Perhaps that explains why we’re now reduced to a documentary, about a documentarian, who once made a documentary about William Burroughs. If you’re stuck for an angle…go meta (a credo that frequently saves my ass). Still, this heartfelt tribute to Burroughs: The Movie director Howard Brookner (who died of AIDS in 1989), by his nephew Aaron Brookner is not wholly unwatchable, and ultimately quite moving.

There’s a Red’s house over yonder: Hail, Caesar! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 6, 2016)

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Not that Hollywood ever tires of making movies about Hollywood…but “they” really seem to be on a roll lately. Arriving on the heels of Jay Roach’s Trumbo (my review), which depicted the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the film industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant, we now have the latest effort from co-writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen…which depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (although in this case, its funnier side).

In fact, the Coens have gone into full “screwball” mode for Hail, Caesar! – leaving no gag unturned (think The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). That said, it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without its Conflicted Everyman Protagonist; for this outing it’s Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, (the ubiquitous Josh Brolin). Not unlike his (wholly fictional) contemporary counterpart “Ray Donovan” (who I wrote about recently) he’s a responsible family man on the one hand, yet earns his living in a twilight world where he is required to bend whatever rules he needs to (moral and/or legal) in order to clean up after his clients. Also like Donovan, Mannix is racked by Catholic guilt.

When Mannix isn’t in the confession box (which provides some of the film’s more drolly amusing scenes) he’s busy putting out fires; like the one that involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Capitol Studio’s biggest stars. Whitlock has been snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future…whose true identity I’m sworn to protect, in the interest of remaining spoiler-free.

In the meantime, Mannix has to stave off a pair of persistent gossip columnists (twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton, who through no fault of her own has to follow Helen Mirren’s recent bigger-than-life, Golden Globes and SAG-nominated turn as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo).

Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which the brothers can construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. 1950s musicals provide fodder for several set pieces; including an Esther Williams send up (with Scarlett Johanssen poured into a mermaid suit), and a takeoff of On the Town, featuring a nimble-footed Channing Tatum firing up a barroom full of hunky sailors and leading them in a winking, cheerfully homoerotic song and dance.

Singing westerns are parodied via Alden Ehrenreich’s character, a hick who hit the big time based not so much on his nominal acting abilities, but due to his looks and rodeo skills. The main plot cleverly mirrors 1950s Red Scare films like Big Jim McLain and I Was a Communist for the FBI (I also found the kidnappers’ hideaway suspiciously reminiscent of the antagonists’ digs in North by Northwest).

Brolin plays it straight, Clooney plays it broad, Ehrenreich is endearing, Johanssen is, uh, gorgeous, and Tatum proves quite adept at comedy (who knew?). Ralph Fiennes hams it up as a finicky “prestige” director, and you can have fun playing “spot the cameo” with the likes of Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, and Dolph Lundgren.

This is far from the Coen’s best work, but the film has just enough of their patented “little touches” (like a Communist who has named his dog “Engels”) that make it unmistakably Coen. Oh-and a character is repeatedly told to shut up; undoubtedly this is a callback to the catchphrase “Shut the fuck up, Donnie!” from The Big Lebowski.

Which is what I will do now.

Blu-ray reissue: Mulholland Drive ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mulholland Drive – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mindfuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third (or was it fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Criterion’s sparkling transfer brings new depth to the light and shadow of Peter Deming’s cinematography. Extras include new interviews with Deming, Lynch, Watts and Harring.

Planet of the cheap f/x: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In dissecting the “art” of cinema, one can very easily bang on all day about narrative construct, auteur theory, lighting, camera angles, tracking shots, meow meow, woof woof…but you know what “they” say: all that artifice and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee. Let’s get real for a moment. At the end of the day, it’s still show business. And business is all about making money…amirite, boychick? And movies are basically about make-believe, right? So bottom line, what we really need here is ideas, bubbeleh, ideas! Ideas that sell tickets, and put asses in seats! With that in mind, here’s a crystalline distillation of all film theory, from one of the interviewees in Mark Hartley’s uneven but generally engaging Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films: “[Producer Menahem Golan] would make shit up…and then we’d film it.” See? Simple!

Mr. Golan and his cousin, Yoram Globus were two movie nuts who grew up in their native Israel dreaming about one day moving to America and becoming Hollywood moguls (which they in fact ended up doing…sort of). Golan directed several films in the late 70s, including one genuine cult item that (depending on who you ask) occasionally threatens to unseat Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space as “Worst Movie of All Time”…the 1979 sci-fi disco musical, The Apple (oy!). Hartley’s film primarily focuses on Golan and Globus’ joint tenure as the honchos of Cannon Films from 1979 until 1989.

During that period, the pair gained a rep for crankin’ ‘em out fast and cheap; as someone in the film observes, “[the money] was all up there on the screen.” That doesn’t necessarily guarantee that what ended up on that screen was eminently watchable, but it was product. And apparently somebody was buying tickets, because they had a “golden period” once they perfected their formula (mostly involving profitable overseas sales).

One thing I had forgotten is that Cannon accidentally made some good films during that period: Love Streams, The Company of Wolves, Runaway Train, Otello, 52 Pick-Up, Street Smart, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Barfly, Powaqqatsi, and A Cry in the Dark. But again, that’s a relative handful among hundreds like The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, Hospital Massacre, Revenge of the Ninja, Bolero, Hercules, Sahara, Death Wish 3 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Not to mention Cannon’s culpability in jumpstarting the careers of Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme (j’accuse!).

While Cannon’s Golan-Globus era indeed makes for quite a “wild story”, it unfortunately morphs from “untold” into “retold one too many times” early on. About halfway through I began to tire of yet one more anecdote from a former associate that illustrates how flinty and eccentric the cousins were (we get it, already!). On the plus side, you can always elect to turn off your brain and revel in the guilty pleasure of all those campy film clips.

Pig after pig, cow after cow: Listen to Me Marlon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2015)

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There are a lot of actors who have tried to be Marlon Brando over the years. God knows, they’ve tried (not that James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Gere, Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Benicio Del Toro or Russell Crowe were/are slouches). In fact, since 1947, which is when a 23 year-old Brando exploded onto the American stage (and into eternal iconography) with his primal performance as Stanley Kolwalski in the original 2-year Broadway run of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s likely the only young actor who hasn’t been influenced by Brando was…Marlon Brando.

He wasn’t “trying” to be anything. That’s because Brando simply “was”. You know the type. He was one of the casually gifted, who takes to acting (or music, writing, poetry, art, dance) like a fish to water, seemingly bereft of studiousness or discipline. And more often than not, they are bored (or at best, bemused) by any inquiry regarding, or any contemplation of…their “process”. Plying genius to craft holds equal import to making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Why, it’s enough to turn any of us into Antonio Salieri:

From now, we are enemies, you and I. Because You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and gave me reward to only recognize the incarnation.

-Salieri addressing God, from Peter Shaffer’s screenplay for the 1984 film, Amadeus

So what did make Brando tick? How does one get a definitive portrait of an artist astutely encapsulated by Camille Paglia (in her 1991 New York Times Book Review critique of Richard Schickel’s Brando biography) as “arrogant and manipulative, seething with raw sensitivities and burning rage, alternately harsh and kind, selfish and generous…a monumental personality of profound complexities and contradictions”? Not an easy task.

Don’t ask me…I’m just an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill. That’s why I leave it to the professionals, like documentary film maker Stevan Riley, who gives it a shot with Listen to Me Marlon (in limited release and eventually headed for Showtime). Using a gimmick similar to The Beatles Anthology (my review) or Kurt Cobain: About a Son (my review), Riley gives Morgan Freeman and Peter Coyote a breather and lets his subject do all of the talking, via carefully assembled sound bites culled from hours of archival interviews and private audio recordings (some of the latter surprisingly frank and intimate). Brando (in a matter of speaking) takes us on a tour of his life, from childhood, to fledgling days in New York as a stage actor, Method study under Stella Adler and through the (somewhat generalized) ups and downs of his movie career.

What’s glaringly absent are references to his tumultuous personal and family life; the various divorces, public custody battles and such (although there is a brief segment dealing with Brando’s testimony during the trial of his son Christian, who shot his half-sister’s boyfriend to death in 1990). There is a quick sound bite or two alluding to the legendary philandering, but if there were any extensive taped confessionals from Brando on that particular aspect of his personality, they remain on the cutting room floor (not surprising, given that this project was produced with the full blessing of Brando’s estate).

Where the film works best is when Brando talks about the craft (which he was famously loath to do). In a fascinating and perplexing segment, he recounts his experience working with Bernardo Bertolucci on Last Tango in Paris. A palpably embittered Brando claims that he was appalled to realize (only after seeing the final cut) that he had “let” the director dupe him into revealing an uncomfortable portion of his “true” self on screen, by incorporating events from his life that he allegedly shared in confidence (Brando was aware that he was making a movie, what with all the cameras and crew and stuff, right?).

Despite all of the “previously unseen” or “unheard” audio and video incorporated into the film, I didn’t find anything here necessarily revelatory; I would not call this a “definitive” portrait. Then again, is it possible to produce a “definitive” portrait of any person who makes their living pretending to be anybody but who they really are? Still, casual fans and film buffs should find this particular “version” of Mr. Brando perfectly serviceable.

I like to watch: The Wolfpack **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2015)

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So what do you get when you cross Being There with The Gods Must Be Crazy? Something along the lines of this unique (if not particularly groundbreaking) documentary from director Crystal Moselle. The film is a portrait of the 9-member Angulo family, who live in a cramped apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Susanne Angulo is an American woman who met her Peruvian husband Oscar while travelling through South America. They married and settled in New York City, where they proceeded to raise six sons and one daughter. So far, a typical family story…right?

Here’s where it gets a little…odd. Apparently, Oscar never quite got over the culture shock of moving from the jungles of Peru to the concrete canyons of Manhattan (or something to that effect; the director doesn’t really clarify, which is one of the film’s flaws). At any rate, at some point he arbitrarily decided that all their children would be home-schooled by his wife, and essentially confined to the apartment. And as time went on, Oscar began spending more and more time locked up in his bedroom, making no effort to socialize (or seek employment)…and day drinking (that’s rarely a good sign).

So you don’t start to worry, let me assure you that this doesn’t end in a murder-suicide (even though the enabling pathology seems to be in place). In fact, here’s the real shocker: The kids are normal. OK, maybe not “normal” normal, but not they are not as fucked up as you would expect. They’re all sharp, friendly, engaging. That’s what’s weird. The secret to their success is watching movies. Lots of movies. Oscar amassed a sizable collection, and gave his kids unlimited access. It’s this tear in the matrix, Oscar’s one concession of (relative) “freedom” that most likely kept the family from imploding (I feel validated, as I have been preaching the gospel of “movie therapy” for years on end).

Do the kids ever break out of their prison? I won’t spoil it, though you’ve likely already figured out where it’s headed. Therein lies the problem with the film; fascinating subject, a documentarian’s dream setup…and the director squanders the opportunity, leaving us with something that (stylistically, at least) adds up to little more than a glorified episode of The Osbournes or 19 Kids and Counting. That aside, still worth a peek for the curious.

SIFF 2015: The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If you’ve seen Roland Joffe’s 1984 war drama The Killing Fields, you’ll likely never forget the extraordinarily moving Oscar-winning performance by “non-actor” Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Ngor didn’t need to call on any Actor’s Studio “sense memory” tricks to deliver his utterly convincing turn as a man who somehow survived and escaped from captivity during Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s unspeakably bloody purge of his own people…he had lived the experience himself. Arthur Dong’s documentary fills us in on what led up to Ngor’s surreal moment in the Hollywood spotlight, and his subsequent second life as a political activist. Unfortunately, despite the late Dr. Ngor’s admirable achievements and Dong’s noble intentions, the workmanlike construct of the film makes it a bit of a slog; it loses focus and runs out of steam about halfway through. Still worth seeing for the simple fact that (Joffe’s film aside), few have expended time and energy to document the worst holocaust since WW2.