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Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

So, do you do anything special for Earth Day? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about, oh, 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one, far back as I can remember). At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, I’ve cobbled together my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. And, as long as you don’t print out a hard copy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation. The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-intentioned) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper. Powers Boothe portrays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide us with some mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this on cable recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan). The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”) in 2002. Do yourself a favor-clear a weekend!

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades (that’s why I was sad when Miazaki-san announced his retirement from directing). This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent offerings. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but most of the patented Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a ubiquitously violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun– I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film managed to do just that. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds might harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time that “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite to SF fans. Dern is the resident gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each one dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth has become barren of organic growth). While it’s just a 9 to 5 drudge to his blue collar shipmates, Dern’s character views his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand that the crew jettison the domes to make room for a more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up by his lonesome with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (named Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?). Oh-there is some ham being served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop, investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson nearly steals the film; his moving death scene has the added poignancy of preceding his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli (try to get past the skintight elephant bells, chest hair and disco moves, and focus on the lyrics

 

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2016

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2016)

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since my pal Digby graciously offered me a crayon, a sippy cup and a weekly play date on her otherwise grownup site so I can scribble about pop culture. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who continues to support Hullabaloo and wish you and yours the best in 2017! ‘Tis the season to do a year-end roundup of the best films I reviewed in 2016. Alphabetically, not in order of preference:

The Curve – It’s tempting to synopsize Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders. (Full review)

Eat That Question – If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s documentary. Admittedly, the film plays best for members of the choir. If you’ve never been a fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. Still, if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb, the impressionistic approach manages to paint a compelling portrait.  (Full review)

Hail, Caesar! – Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen Brothers outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which they are able to construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. That said, there is another level to the film, one which (similar to the 2015 film Trumbo) depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the movie industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (in this case, a Hollywood “fixer” played by Josh Brolin). George Clooney hams it up as a dim-witted leading man who gets 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 (don’t ask). It’s supremely silly, yet enjoyable.  (Full review)

Home Care – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama with gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.   (Full review)

Jackie – Who among us (old enough to remember) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963? Pablo Larrain’s film fearlessly wades right inside its protagonist’s psyche, fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. The question of “why now?” might arise, to which I say (paraphrasing JFK)…“why not?”  (Full review)

Mekko – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from all. There’s more here than meets the eye, with subtexts about Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality.  (Full review)

Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

Snowden – Oliver Stone had a tough act to follow (Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour) when he tackled his biopic about Edgar Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices, but he pulls it off quite well. This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society. Stylistically speaking, the film recalls cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with a nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (Full review)

The Tunnel– Kim Seong-hun’s film is a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea, concerning a harried Everyman (Ha Jung-woo) who gets trapped in his car when a mountain tunnel collapses on top of him. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks (typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ). There’s more than meets the eye here; much akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.  Full review)

Weiner – Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given remarkable access to Anthony Weiner, his family and campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated 2013 N.Y.C. mayoral run. Their no-holds-barred film raises many interesting questions prompted in the wake of the former congressman’s “sexting” scandal (which led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011)…the most obvious one being: should ‘we’ be willing to forgive personal indiscretions (barring actual criminal offenses) of those we have voted into office? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s this chestnut: WTF were you thinking?! If you’re curious to see the film because you think it answers that one, don’t waste your time. However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get for those in the trenches, this is a must-see.   (Full review)

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

Out for repairs

By Dennis Hartley

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For all 5  of my regular readers, a note that I won’t be posting for a bit here and over at Digby’s as I’ll be recovering from knee surgery. I had my right knee replaced 2 years ago; I figure that it is time now to give my left one a nice matching scar (Accessorize. Accessorize. Accessorize!).

But don’t let that stop you from dropping by, any time! By all means, feel free to browse the archives, especially if you need ideas for movie night. And as soon as I’m back in action, you’ll be the first to know…

2016 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2016)

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It’s nearly time again for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 19th through June 12th). SIFF is showing 421 shorts, features and docs from 85 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (as for me, I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities I have gleaned after obsessively combing through every capsule description.*

(*Someday, I’ll get a life. I promise. After I watch this movie. Oh, and these movies…)

Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries with a socio-political bent. Action Commandante (South Africa) is a profile of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, who was gunned down by police in 1987 (at age 20) and name-checked by Nelson Mandela in his 1990 post-prison release speech. Ovarian Psycos profiles the eponymous East L.A. community activist group (young women of color who have formed their own “cycle brigade”.)  The Lovers and the Despot (UK) claims to be a “real life espionage thriller”, about the daring escape of a South Korean film director and his actress wife who were kidnapped at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and forced to become his “personal filmmakers” (you can’t make this shit up). And a little closer to home: Weiner (USA) is a frank (sorry!) behind the scenes look at Anthony Weiner’s “audacious, ill-fated comeback campaign” for NYC Mayor in 2013. Of course, in light of the current campaign cycle, it may all seem pretty tame now.

Two docs take a hard look at the ripple effects of high technology. Death by Design (China) looks to give you nightmares about how that little smartphone you’re holding in your hands right now is playing no small part in destroying our planet. Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World takes a more existential approach (doesn’t he always?), using “a series of vignettes tracing the past, present, and possible future of the internet.” If Herzog throws in a chicken dancing on a hotplate, act surprised.

Showbiz docs always fascinate me; there are a number of good possibilities this year. 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin (France) is a rare profile of the somewhat elusive avant-garde Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (I’ve hardly even seen a photograph of the guy). Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (USA) seems self-explanatory. Bang! The Bert Berns Story (USA) is a timely release, as the largely unheralded songwriter/record producer of 51 pop/R&B chart singles during the 1960s was recently inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We Are X (USA) profiles 80s rockers X Japan, “the most successful rock band in Japanese history” that we have never heard of. I am prepared to be enlightened. The most intriguing “behind the music” entry this year is Red Gringo (Chile), the story of how U.S.-born Dean Reed became a huge pop star in South America in the early 1960s, then eventually…a “Communist icon” (Reds meets Jailhouse Rock?).

Turning to ha-ha funny: From director Jose Luis Guernin, The Academy of Muses (Spain) concerns a professor who “uses high-minded academic discourse in the pursuit of more carnal longings”. He gets called out by his wife, who sees through his chat-up routine…sparking “an improbable romantic comedy, dense with ideas yet lighthearted throughout.” Doesn’t that describe nearly every Woody Allen film since Annie Hall? Speaking of whom, SIFF has snagged the Woodman’s Café Society for this year’s Opening Night Gala (it’s also the North American premiere). The romantic comedy is set in 1930s Hollywood, and stars Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. I’m looking forward to Wiener-Dog, the latest cringe comedy from the always provocative Todd Solondz; a series of character vignettes filtered “…through the eyes of an adorable dachshund.” Arf.

Speaking of adorable lap animals, SIFF has both dog and cat lovers covered this year. Kedi (Turkey/Germany/USA) explores the unique relationship between human and feline residents of Istanbul, where cats are revered as deeply spiritual creatures (I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot of footage, of a lot of cats, doing a lot of cat stuff…pretty much wherever they want). Then there’s the doggie doc Searchdog (USA), showing how a K9 Search and Rescue Specialist goes about turning his raw recruits into four-legged heroes.

More selections in the “family-friendly” realm that have potential: The adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilder People (New Zealand) stars Sam Neill as “a cantankerous new guardian” to an ornery foster child; the two trigger a manhunt after they get themselves lost in the boonies. Keeping in the “incredible journey” vein, Long Way North (France/Denmark) is an animated adventure following a 15 year old Russian aristocrat on her quest to the North Pole to find her missing explorer grandfather (shades of Tin-Tin).

In case you don’t have enough drama in your life: Before the Streets (Quebec) is a redemption story of a young man who returns to the traditions of his Atikamekw community in the wake of a tragedy. Similar cultural themes are explored in Mekko (USA), a drama set in Tulsa about a Muscogee Indian trying to get his life back on track following his release from prison. And if costume dramas are your thing, the droll Whit Stillman has adapted Jane Austen’s novella Love & Friendship for the screen, re-uniting his The Last Days of Disco co-stars Kate Beckinsdale and Chloe Sevigny (with big hats!).

I’m always a sucker for a good noir/crime/mystery thriller. Frank & Lola (USA) features Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in a neo-noir revenge tale set in Las Vegas. A couple of “conspiracy a-go-go” political potboilers look interesting: If There’s a Hell Below (filmed in Eastern Washington) offers a Snowden-type of scenario involving “an ambitious journalist and a nervous whistleblower” meeting up in the middle of nowhere to exchange information. Our Kind of Traitor (USA) stars Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris in Susanna White’s adaptation of a John Le Carre novel. And the “Czar of Noir”, Eddie Mueller will be in the house to introduce The Bitter Stems, the latest treasure to be restored in 35mm by his Film Noir Foundation. It’s a rarely seen 1956 Argentinian film about a fallen journalist struggling with conscience after committing the “perfect crime”.

There’s another special revival presentation at this year’s SIFF that will surely make action fans plotz…that would be the 4K restoration of King Hu’s highly stylized and hugely influential 1967 wuxia classic, Dragon Inn (without which we never would have had a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). More action: The Last King (Norway), set in a wintry 11th-Century Scandinavia, is billed as “Game of Thrones on skis.” Arriving on the spurs of The Hateful Eight, we have In a Valley of Violence, with Ethan Hawke as a cowboy with a collie (!) at loggerheads with a corrupt sheriff (John Travolta, who I’m guessing chews all the tumbleweed and cacti). It wouldn’t be a proper SIFF without at least one pulpy, Hong Kong-produced gangster flick…and The Mobfather looks to be it.

I always try to leave enough room on my plate to tuck into some sci-fi and fantasy. The Battledream Chronicle, which has the distinction of being the first feature-length animation film from the island of Martinique, is set in a futuristic world where humans have become virtual reality slaves (how is that different from now?). In the live-action sci-fi drama Equals, Kirsten Stewart and Nicholas Hoult star as law-breaking lovers in an ultra-conformist “utopia” where heightened emotions have been genetically eradicated (looks like a cross between Logan’s Run and THX-1138). And steam punks finally get their own documentary…Vintage Tomorrows, which examines their unique sub-culture.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog. I’ll be plowing through screeners and sharing reviews with you starting next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF website for the full film roster, and info about event screenings and special guests.

I got yer top 10 right heah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2015)

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‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2015. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I’ve been able to cover since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every release (that pesky 9-5 gig keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:

Chappie– This is the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). While there are echoes here of nearly every “AI-goes-awry” cautionary tale since Metropolis (plus a large orange soda), through their creation of the eponymous character, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell nonetheless manage to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. Once you’ve cut through all the bombast and the obligatory action tropes in the narrative, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, even timeless kind of resonance. [Full review]

Fassbinder: Love without Demands– By the time he died at age 37 in 1982, the iconoclastic German director-screenwriter-actor (and producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc.) Rainier Werner Fassbinder had churned out 40 feature films, a couple dozen stage plays, 2 major television film series, and an assortment of video productions, radio plays and short films. Mind you, this was over a 15-year period. Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen does an amazing job of tying together the prevalent themes in Fassbinder’s work with the personal and psychological motivations that fueled this indefatigable drive to create, to provoke, and to challenge the status quo. [Full review]

An Italian Name– If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt two subgenres I have dubbed The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures. This breezy 94 minute social satire plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. I was also blissfully unaware that it was first adapted as a 2012 French film, so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. [Full review]

Liza, the Fox Fairy– If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. [Full review]

Love and Mercy– Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Actually, there are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’ n’ roll biopics I’ve seen in years. [Full review]

A Pigeon sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence– Full disclosure…I initially gave this film an appraisal that was ambivalent at best. But as I have said in the past, I reserve the right to occasionally change my mind; and since I’ve had some time now to sit on my branch and reflect, I’ve decided it belongs on this list. That doesn’t mean that I’m any closer to understanding what the fuck this movie is “about” any more so than previous. How do I summarize a film cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes sharing little in common save for the fact that they share little in common…why bother? [Full review]

Song of the Sea– Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells with another lovely animated take on Irish folklore, this one steeped in “selkie” mythology. Moore has fashioned a family-friendly entertainment that feels like an instant classic; imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernable warmth in Moore’s skilled use of hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days. [Full review]

Tangerines– This Estonian-Georgian production was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, who  sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 90s. While there are touchstones like La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, the film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  [Full review]

Trumbo– One could draw many historical parallels with the present from this fact-based drama by director Jay Roach, which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms). Bryan Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era Hunter S. Thompson. While not as emotionally resonant as the thematically similar 1976 film The Front, Trumbo happily shares a like purpose, by providing something we need right now…a Rocky for liberals. [Full review]

When Marnie Was There– Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It’s gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling. [Full review]

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

Celebrating Independence: Top 10 Indie Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 4, 2015)

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With Independence Day upon us, I thought I’d share my top ten favorite indie films. You’ll notice that I went ahead and used “favorite” as a qualifier (instead of “greatest”) because I realized going in that there are as many differing views of what constitutes an “indie” as there are fingerprints (“What?! Not one Cassavetes on your list? No Altman?! Hartley, your critic’s license is revoked!”) The most obvious explanation for the lack of a consensus would the simple fact that independent productions have been around for as long as cinema itself. Citizen Kane was an indie…as was Plan 9 from Outer Space; one is considered by many as the greatest film ever made, the other is considered by many as the worst (I rest my case). Is a film “independent” because it is made outside the system, or because it feels outside the box? We now live in an age when major studios have an “independent” division, churning out self-consciously “quirky” formula product like so much hipster catnip. Who’s to say? So here’s the list…in non-ranking alphabetical order:

 Badlands– With only 6 feature-length projects over 40 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm. Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a 20-something ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate). Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Killer’s Kiss– It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time. Hence, the dialog is a bit stilted. But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s. There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; somehow it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (perhaps indicating how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as a time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955. Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

Last Night– A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters. Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright and a rare acting appearance by director David Cronenberg. Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!). The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop.

Pink Flamingos– “Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of “bad taste” John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man) Divine was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her skuzzy hubby. It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his truly indie “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of his oeuvre.

Pow Wow Highway– A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That being said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because it contains one of those episodic, virtually plotless “road trip” narratives that may cause drowsiness for some viewers after about 15 minutes. Yet, I feel compelled to revisit this one at least once a year. Go figure. A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, a sociopathic British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs. But the “plot” doesn’t matter. As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema is capable of capturing and preserving the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

She’s Gotta Have It– “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men (who are all quite aware of each other’s existence). Lee steals his own movie by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a hilarious trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks maximum laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as they each jockey for the alpha position (and makes keen observations about sexist machismo and male vanity along the way). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. Despite being a little rough around the edges (due to low budget constraints) it was still a groundbreaking film in the context of modern independent cinema, and an empowering milestone for an exciting new wave of talented African-American filmmakers who followed in its wake.

Sherman’s March– Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth your time as well.

Stranger than Paradise – Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 debut firmly established his formula of long, static camera takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of the human race. John Lurie is Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson). Both suffer from terminal boredom, alleviated by constant bickering. Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenaged cousin from Hungary, who shows up at his door (much to his chagrin). Eddie is intrigued, but the misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, blood relative or not, and Eva decides after a few days that she would probably find more welcoming accommodations with Aunt Lotte (delightfully played by Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Flash forward one year, and we find Willie and Eddie still sitting around…still bickering. Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Cleveland might break them out of their rut. Willie grumpily agrees, and off they go to visit Aunt Lotte and cousin Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues. Future film director Tom DiCillo did the fine black and white photography, evoking a strange beauty in the stark and wintry industrial flatness of Cleveland and its Lake Erie environs.

Word, Sound and Power– This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour, but is about the best film anyone is ever likely to make about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene. Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of prolific studio players who were sort of the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew (they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert, to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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1931-2014

Mike Nichols passed away earlier this week. Perhaps more than any other film director I can think of, his catalog (stretching from 1966 to 2007) encapsulates the crucial paradigm shifts in America’s social mores (and to some extent, changes in the political landscape) over the past 50 years. I would also consider him one of the progenitors of the modern film “dramedy”, which stemmed from his background in improvisational comedy (he was one of the key players in an early 60s troupe that would later morph into Second City) and in later years, his experience as a theater director. He was, in all senses of the term, an “actor’s director”, clearly evident from the iconic performances that he coaxed from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I don’t think he ever made  a “bad” film, which makes it difficult to narrow down favorites…but I’ll highlight my top three:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by  Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple (which is more than enough, thank you very much). After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece. Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Nichols classic that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (and the original cougar!). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” artistic collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s droll screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.

Silkwood– The tagline for this 1983 film was intriguing: “On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there.” One might expect a riveting conspiracy thriller to ensue; however what director Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arden do deliver is an absorbing character study of an ordinary working-class woman who performed an act of extraordinary courage which may (or may not) have led to her untimely demise. Meryl Streep gives a typically immersive portrayal of Silkwood, who worked as a chemical tech at an Oklahoma facility that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. On behalf of her union (and based on her own observations) Silkwood testified before the AEC in 1974 about ongoing health and safety concerns at her plant. Shortly afterwards, she tested positive for an unusually high level of plutonium contamination. Silkwood alleged malicious payback from her employers, while they countered that she had engineered the scenario herself. Later that year, on the last night of her life, she was in fact on her way to meeting with a Times reporter, armed with documentation to back her claims, when she was killed after her car ran off the road. Nichols stays neutral on the conspiratorial whispers; but still delivers the goods, thanks in no small part to his exemplary cast, including Kurt Russell (as Silkwood’s husband), and Cher (who garnered critical raves and a Golden Globe) as their housemate.

Also recommended: Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, The Day of the Dolphin, Working Girl, Primary Colors, Angels in America, Charlie Wilson’s War (my review).

Too soon: R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2014)

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1967-2014

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. And Hoffman did so without fail, in role after role, naked and unafraid. I’m sad beyond words that such a giant talent has left us so soon. Here are 10 “cringe-worthy” highlights:

Almost Famous– Although it’s essentially a cameo, this is one of my favorite Hoffman performances.  He plays the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s auto-biographical  dramedy about a teenage journalist hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tag along and formulate a “think piece” about a touring rock band.

Boogie Nights– While he wasn’t the star, this was Hoffman’s breakout performance. It’s a real testament to Hoffman’s genius that he managed to leave such an impression on audiences and critics with his supporting role as “Scotty J.” in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 opus about the 70s porno film industry; especially considering the huge cast.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead– Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, this nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, stars Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) to help him pull an ill-advised heist involving a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast, and superbly directed by Sidney Lumet.

Capote- Undoubtedly the role Hoffman will be best remembered by, thanks to  his well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film.  It’s a riveting dramatization about the complex friendship that developed  between the writer and  convicted killer Perry Smith  while Capote was researching his “true crime” masterwork, In Cold Blood.. Hoffman isn’t merely playing Truman Capote in this movie, he is Truman Capote.

Happiness– This 1998 Todd Solondz film features one of Hoffman’s under-appreciated turns. Admittedly, Solondz’s films may not be everyone’s cup of tea (be prepared for that “cringe” factor) but if you’re OK with network narratives involving nothing but completely fucked-up individuals, this is your ticket. Brave performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction.

And rounding off the top 10, here are links to my full reviews of five more films featuring notable Hoffman performances:

The Savages

Synecdoche NY

Ides of March

The Master

Pirate Radio

Lazy hazy crazy: Top 10 Summer idyll films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2013)

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Since this is the first official weekend of Summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of those “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds…the smells, of Summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

Claire’s Knee– This 1970 offering is “part five” of a six-film cycle by the late French director Eric Rohmer known collectively as “Six Moral Tales” (each individual entry works  fine as a stand-alone film), and my favorite of the cycle. Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a thirty something diplomat enjoying his final “bachelor holiday” on Lake Annecy, where he runs into old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu). She is a writer, currently blocked for  ideas. Playfully informing Jerome that he will be her Muse, she offers him a guest room, and introduces him to her neighbor, a woman with two teenage daughters, a precocious 15 year-old named Laura (Beatrice Romand) and her aloof 16-year old sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). It doesn’t take Jerome long to start giving Aurora story ideas.  While mindfully keeping Laura’s platonic crush at bay, he finds himself drawn to her sister, developing an inexplicable desire to touch her knee. Despite how that sounds, there’s nothing leering about the way Rohmer handles it. To Jerome, this is an abstract and romanticized  form of adulation (like Alan Ladd’s obsession with the painting in Laura), as opposed to a sexual urge . He keeps the voyeuristic Aurora apprised, as she eggs him on (she needs the material). Ultimately as enigmatic as love itself, topped off with gorgeous cinematography by Nestor Almendros .

The Graduate- “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar!). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” artistic collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a pristine, richly colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the formidable chops of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but the film is most fascinating whenever cameras turn away from the artists and casually linger on the audience and their environs  while the music continues in the background. The effect truly is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, half the fun is people-watching. Stern is breaking with film making conventions of the era; you are witnessing the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t flower until nearly a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

Last Summer– This criminally ignored 1969 gem was directed by Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe) and adapted by playwright Eleanor Perry (his wife) from Evan Hunter’s novel. It’s  tough to summarize without possible spoilers. At its basic level, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted by all.

Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not usually mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise and drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with deep and somber dramas. Gunnar Bjornstrand (Bergman’s most oft-used actor) heads a fine ensemble as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a lovely young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this leads to amusing complications. Love in all of its guises is deftly represented by a bevy of richly-drawn supporting characters, who converge in a beautifully constructed third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literately scripted and surprisingly sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

 Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was really on a roll there for a while in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five truly exceptional films in a row, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy sits smack in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King story (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet coming-of-age “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a clandestine search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn some hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a tricky roller coaster of emotions and richness of “back story” with an aplomb that belies their age and experience (at that stage of their careers). Richard Dreyfus (as the adult Wheaton character) does the voice-over narration. A modern classic.

Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Maybe Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. Although a few narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel somewhat familiar to anime fans (particularly the bombastic “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (quite reminiscent of the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile film.

Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. Alas, our hero’s idyll inevitably gets steamrolled by the old adage: “Where ever you go…there you are.” The pacing lags at times, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a hilariously choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays out like a languid, sun-baked California desert fever dream…it’s because it was. As the late director once claimed, the story literally popped into his head while he was sleeping. What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The three women of interest are Millie (Shelly Duvall), an incessantly chatty nursing home therapist, dismissed as a needy bore by everyone around her except for her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and the enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who whiles away her days painting bizarre anthropomorphic lizard figures on swimming pool bottoms. The personas of the three merge in compelling fashion, bolstered by fearless performances from all three leads. By the end, there’s no room for doubt that creations like Willie, Millie and Pinky could only have emerged from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Over the hills and far away: Top 10 films for St. Patrick’s

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2013)

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With Saint Patrick’s Day falling on this weekend, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with these 10 grand recommendations…

 The Butcher Boy– A sleeper from director Neil Jordan, featuring one of the most extraordinary performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen (Eamonn Owens is a midget Brando). Difficult to describe, the film is in the vein of An Angel at My Table or Heavenly Creatures. The difficult and dark subject matter is handled with a surprising amount of warmth and compassion. Heartbreaking, savagely funny, and worth seeking out.

The Commitments– “Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Pulling together a cast of talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius from director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some ways a thematic remake of the director’s own 1980 film Fame, Parker transplants the scenario from New York to Dublin (look fast for a sly reference when a band member sings a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that really shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been drinking a fifth and smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member Glen Hansard popped up  as the co-star of the surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely (if a bit over-praised) character study that would make a good double bill.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People– Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!). Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”).

Garage– I only recently discovered this bittersweet 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran, but I would easily place it as one of the finest films to come out of Ireland in the last decade. It’s a deceptively simple tale about an emotionally/socially stunted but good natured 30-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comedian in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations, delivering an insightful glimpse at the human condition as affecting and profound as Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

In Bruges– Full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, I realized that I had “missed something” the first time around, and have now decided that I actually like this film quite a lot (it happens).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of  “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb…and an adjective.

Into the West– A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

My Left Foot– This was the first (and best) of three rewarding collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This 1989 biopic about Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical roadblocks makes for an incredibly moving film.

What makes this film unique within its genre is the avoidance of that over-used audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with all his peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you quickly acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, and see past them, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not an object of pity. That is a mark of a truly great actor, and Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. It’s easy to overlook 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as the young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

Odd Man Out– An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the dark and shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is most definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up remarkably well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with strong political undercurrents. The great cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

The Quiet Man– A John Ford classic. I was never a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s damn near perfect in this role as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from the gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although quite tame by today’s standards, I’ve always found the romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara to be surprisingly tactile and sensuous for the time. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier onscreen, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal.