Category Archives: Social Satire

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

Blu-ray reissue: Tampopo ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Tampopo – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl.

A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love. Criterion’s edition features a nicely restored print and a generous helping of extras, including Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s 1962 debut short film.

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is as painfully funny as it is to watch it (I consider him the founding father of  the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”). Criterion’s extras are skimpy, but the 2K restoration is fabulous.

Blu-ray reissue: The Loved One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Loved One – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

In 1965, this black comedy/social satire was billed as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” By today’s standards, it’s relatively tame (but still pretty sick). Robert Morse plays a befuddled Englishman struggling to process the madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood studio.

Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable mortuary cosmetician (Anjanette Comer), gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically reacts to all the various whack-jobs he encounters. The wildly eclectic cast includes Jonathan Winters (in three roles), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Liberace, Paul Williams and Rod Steiger (as Mr. Joyboy!). Tony Richardson directed; the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel. No extras on this edition, but the high-definition transfer is good.

Blu-ray reissue: Multiple Maniacs ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Multiple Maniacs – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Warning: This 1970 trash classic from czar of bad taste John Waters is definitely not for the pious, easily offended or the faint of heart. A long out-of-print VHS edition aside, it has been conspicuously absent from home video…until now. Thank (or blame) The Criterion Collection, who have meticulously restored the film back to all of its original B&W 16mm glory (well, almost…there’s grumbling from purists about the “new” music soundtrack, reportedly precipitated by the prohibitive costs of securing music rights for some of the tracks that were “borrowed” by Waters for his original cut).

The one and only Divine heads the cast who became Waters’ faithful “Dreamland” repertory (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, etc.) in a tale of mayhem, filth and blasphemy too shocking to discuss in mixed company (you’ll never see a Passion Play the same way).

Watching this the other day for the first time in several decades, I was suddenly struck by the similarities with the contemporaneous films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder (Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague in particular). Once you get past its inherent shock value, Multiple Maniacs is very much an American art film. Extras include a typically hilarious commentary track by Waters.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Detail ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Last Detail – Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This edition sports a fabulous 4K restoration (the audio is cleaned up too, crucial for a dialog-driven piece like this). Loads of extras-including a sanitized TV cut of the film, just for giggles.

Blu-ray reissue: Being There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Being There – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

For my money, the late director Hal Ashby was the quintessential embodiment of the new American cinema movement of the 1970s. Beginning in 1970, he bracketed the decade with an astonishing seven film streak: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and this 1979 masterpiece.

Adapted from Jerzy Kosinki’s novel by frequent Ashby collaborator Robert C. Jones (who was not credited…a hitherto unknown tidbit revealed in an extra feature), it’s a wry political fable about how a simpleton (Peter Sellers, in one of his greatest performances) literally stumbles his way into becoming a Washington D.C. power player within an alarmingly short period of time. Only in America!

Richly drawn, finely layered, at once funny and sad (but never in a broad manner). Superbly acted by all, from the leads (Sellers, Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart) down to the smallest supporting roles (a special mention for the wonderful Ruth Attaway).

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network, this film only seems to become more vital with age. The Trump parallels are numerous enough; but one scene where Sellers meets with the Russian ambassador (a great cameo by Richard Basehart) has now taken on a whole new (and downright spooky) relevancy. Criterion’s Blu-ray features a beautiful 4K restoration and a plethora of enlightening extra features.

SIFF 2017: Zoology **

By Dennis Hartley

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

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This oddity from Russian writer-director Ivan Tverdosky answers the question: What would happen if David Cronenberg directed a film with a script by Lena Dunham? A middle-aged, socially phobic woman who lives with her mother and works in a zoo administration office, appears to be at her happiest when she’s hanging out with the animals who are housed there. That’s because her supervisor and co-workers cruelly belittle her, on a daily basis. But when a doctor’s exam reveals a tail growing from the base of her spine, she is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of empowerment and begins to gain confidence, perhaps even a sense of defiance about her “otherness”. This does not go unnoticed by a strapping young x-ray tech, who becomes hopelessly smitten as this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan…a beautiful swan with a freakishly long tensile tail.

SIFF 2017: Infinity Baby **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Merely posing as a “near-future” dystopia tale, Austin-based director Bob Byington’s film is really an examination of modern romance. In other words, it’s only “sci-fi” in the sense that Woody Allen’s Sleeper was “sci-fi” (if you catch my drift). A douchey hipster (Kieran Culkin) with a fear of commitment works for a company that holds a patent on a genetic modification that creates “infinity babies”…human infants forever frozen at 3 months old who never cry and require only weekly feedings and diaper changes (which makes it a fantasy for a lot of first-time parents, I’m guessing?). Onur Tukel’s fitful screenplay works best whenever it steers away from the sci-fi elements and focuses instead on wry observation and passive-aggressive verbal jousting.

Any news that fits: Criterion reissues The Front Page *** & His Girl Friday ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Travel back with me now to the halcyon days of the chain-smoking star reporter…a time when men were men (and cracked wise) women were women (and cracked wiser), and fake news was but a colorfully enhanced version of the truth (as opposed to “alternative facts”). Actually, this particular version of “reality” existed largely within the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters

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The granddaddy of the genre is Lewis Milestone’s 1931 screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, The Front Page. As Michael Sragow notes in his essay, included with Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of the film and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday:

[The Front Page] became famous, sometimes infamous, for its frankness about sleazy backroom politics and reckless, sensationalistic newspapers, and for its suggestive patter and profanity. It brought a crackling comic awareness of American corruption into popular culture, and it made rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue fashionable…

What did he say? “Profanity” in an American film from 1931? Well, this was “pre-Code” Hollywood, which is demarcated by the implementation of the 1930 Hays Code. Not strictly enforced by the major production studios until 1934, the Code set fairly strict guidelines on “morality” and message in films until it finally fizzed in 1968 (don’t laugh…could happen again).

That said, The Front Page feels a bit creaky and tame by today’s standards, and its “rapid fire” dialog is like slow-motion compared to the machine-gun patter of the 1940 revamp (more on that in a moment). Still, its historical value is inarguable, making it a most welcome “bonus” feature.

Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay from Hecht and MacArthur’s play, with “additional dialogue” by Charles Lederer (who was later re-deployed to adapt the same source material into His Girl Friday). Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton lead the fine cast.

O’Brien plays veteran reporter Hildy Johnson, on his last day at a Chicago tabloid. Much to the chagrin of his boss (and long-time friend) Walter Burns (Menjou), he has given notice and is about to head off to marry his sweetheart Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and start a new career as a New York ad man. However, fate and circumstance intervene when an irresistible “exclusive” falls into Hildy’s lap regarding the imminent jailhouse execution of an anarchist, whose sentencing may not have been determined so much in the interest of jurisprudence as it was to benefit city officials up for re-election (political corruption in Chicago-how’d they get that idea?).

Criterion touts this particular restoration of The Front Page to be the closest approximation to date of the director’s “optimum cut”. It turns out that the version we’ve been seeing on TV, home video and at revivals all these years (along with the copy stored at the Library of Congress) was the so-called “foreign” version. In the early 30s, it apparently was not uncommon to shoot three different negatives; one destined for domestic audiences, and one each for British and “general foreign” distribution (I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this practice). As Sragow elaborates:

Cast and crew invariably saved their best efforts for the American version: the freshest, bounciest performances, the sharpest or most fluid camera work and staging, the keenest beats and cadences. For the other versions, filmmakers often rewrote scenes, substituting language and references that would be easier to grasp in other parts of the world. […] In 2014, the Academy set out to restore The Front Page from a 35 mm print that had been part of the Howard Hughes film collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. […] What’s most elating about Milestone’s preferred cut is not merely the restitution of more authentic language but the reclamation of more vibrant rhythms and images.

What he said-although again, I find the film a tad creaky. Still, kudos to Criterion for including it.

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There’s nothing “creaky” about Howard Hawks’ perennially fresh and funny newsroom comedy His Girl Friday, which is of course the “main feature” of this Criterion Blu-ray reissue package. Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (uncredited) adapted the screenplay from the same Hecht and MacArthur stage version of The Front Page, but added some significant twists: pulling a gender switch on two of the primary characters, and modifying the backstory of a personal relationship.

Hildy remains a veteran reporter, but here is a female character (Rosalind Russell) who quits her job at a New York City paper, disappears for several months, then pops by the newsroom one day with a hot tip for ex-boss/ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant)-she’s off to Albany to marry and settle down with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As in The Front Page, Walter hates the idea of losing his star reporter (in this case for personal, as well as professional reasons).

In his heart of hearts, Walter (who freely admits that he wasn’t the best of husbands) doesn’t quite buy the idea that Hildy, a highly competitive, hard-boiled adrenaline junkie who enjoys nothing more than the challenge of getting the scoop on a hot story, has suddenly decided that settling down in Albany with a milquetoast insurance salesman is the life that she would prefer to lead. And so he sets about scheming to win her back. At this point, the narrative converges with The Front Page, vis a vis the subplot involving the condemned anarchist and the corrupt politicians.

What ensues is one of the most wonderfully played and rapidly-paced mashups of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, crime drama and social satire ever concocted this side of The Thin Man. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that director Howard Hawks already had two bonafide classic screwball comedies (Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) under his belt.

Something to observe in repeat viewings is how Hawks masterfully frames all his shots; specifically how he choreographs the background action. The natural tendency is to focus on the overlapping repartee (delivered with such deftness and tight, precise pentameter that you could sync a metronome to it), but keep an eye out for sly sight gags that are easy to miss if you blink.

Something interesting that stood out upon my most recent viewing was the nascent feminism of the piece. For a film of its time, it is unusual enough to see such a strong and self-assured female character, much less one so matter-of-factually presented as being on equal footing with her male peers as Hildy. Her fellow reporters look up to her because they all acknowledge her as their best and brightest. That she happens to be a woman, is merely incidental. In this respect, I think of Russell’s inspired portrayal of Hildy as the prototype for future TV characters Mary Richards and Murphy Brown; I also see a lot of “her” in Holly Hunter’s memorable turn in Broadcast News.

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is stunning; I’ve never seen this film looking so good. The audio track (crucial in such a dialog-driven piece) is clean and crystal-clear (ditto for The Front Page, which was treated to a 4k transfer, in addition to its new restoration). Extras include an insightful new interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday, archival interviews with Howard Hawks, a new piece about writer Ben Hecht, radio adaptations of both films, and written essays about each film, presented as a faux-newspaper (a la Thick as a Brick…little reference for you Jethro Tull fans). The year is still young, but this is the best reissue of 2017 at this juncture.