Category Archives: Up the Workers

Let’s party like it’s 1929: Top 10 Great Depression Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2017)

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Yesterday, after putting my head down on the desk for a spell (which I haven’t done since kindergarten), in order to process the inaugural address, I felt compelled to do a Google search using the key words “Fascism” and “ideal conditions” – and I found this:

Fascism begins by promising to make the country strong again, to restore pride. It wants to help, it wants to build a better country, it wants to improve your life. It wants to challenge a corrupt establishment and change a broken system. It wants to get people working again and get tough on crime. It doesn’t present an image of violent thugs to you, instead it shows the face of ordinary respectable people, people just like you, who have had enough. […]

So it starts with things a lot of people find attractive: national pride, restoration of glory, fighting the establishment. Then it pushes this further and further to the extreme. The nationalism become more extreme. Not only are we the best people, but all others are inferior. They only appear better because they cheat, they lie, they steal. The establishment is corrupt, the system is rigged, it is undeserving of support, it is illegitimate. The opponents are crooks, they should be put in jail. The media is suppressing the facts, censoring the truth, spreading lies, their dishonest must be silenced.  Democracy only leads to indecisive and ineffective politicians, it only elects liars too corrupt to serve the people. If only we had a strong and decisive ruler, then we could solve the country’s problems. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.

-from a post by Robert Nielsen (Whistling in the Wind blog)

The author is explaining how Fascism was able to flourish in Europe between the wars, but there are obvious parallels with the current political climate (in Europe and the U.S.).

So, with that cheery thought in mind, and in the interest of applying what I call cinematic aversion therapy, here’s my Top 10 Great Depression Movies. Study them well, because you know what “they” say: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz- When you think of the Depression in terms of film and literature, it tends to vibe America-centric. In reality, the economic downturn between wars was a global phenomenon; things were literally “tough all over”. You could say Germany had a jumpstart (economically speaking, everything below the waist was kaput by the mid 1920s). In October of 1929 (interesting historical timing), Alfred Doblin’s epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was published, then adapted into a film in 1931 directed by Phil Jutzi. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that the ultimate film version emerged as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour opus (made for German TV but also distributed as a feature film). It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate this emotionally draining epic in a few lines; it is by turns one of the most shocking, transcendent, maddening and soul-scorching films you’ll ever see. If that time investment is too daunting, you can always opt for Cabaret!

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Bonnie and Clyde– The gangster movie meets the art house in this 1967 offering from director Arthur Penn. There is much more to this influential masterpiece than the oft-referenced operatic crescendo of violent death in the closing frames; particularly of note was the ingenious way its attractive antiheroes were posited to appeal to the counterculture zeitgeist of the 1960s, even though the film was ostensibly a period piece. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were nowhere near as charismatic as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty…but we don’t care, do we? The outstanding cast includes Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and Gene Wilder in his movie debut.

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Bound for Glory– “This machine kills Fascists”. There’s only one man to whom Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen must kowtow-and that’s Woody Guthrie. You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of America’s premier protest songwriter/social activist. David Carradine gives one of his finest performances, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing. Haskell Wexler’s outstanding cinematography earned him a well-deserved Oscar. The film may feel a bit overlong and slow in spots if you aren’t particularly fascinated by Guthrie’s story; but I think it is just as much about the Depression itself, and perhaps more than any other film on this list, it succeeds as a “total immersion” back to that era.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful film or John Steinbeck’s classic source novel, so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this probably comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the heartbreak and struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take (real or imagined) comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.”

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Inserts– This 1976 sleeper from director John Byrum has been dismissed as pretentious dreck by some; it remains a cult item for others. If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, the late great Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated film, would you believe me? Dreyfuss plays a has-been Hollywood directing prodigy known as “Wonder Boy”, whose career has peaked early; he now lives in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets in pornos that he shoots in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins is memorable as the sleazy “producer”, who is also looking for investors for his scheme-an idea to open a chain of hamburger joints (his nickname is “Big Mac”). The story is set in 1930s Hollywood, and as a period wallow in the more squalid side of show biz, it’s the perfect double bill with The Day of the Locust.

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King of the Hill– Steven Soderbergh’s exquisitely photographed film (somewhat reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon) is a bittersweet rendering of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era tale about young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who lives with his parents and kid brother in a decrepit hotel. After his sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is sent away for convalescence, his kid brother is packed off to stay with relatives, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road as a traveling salesman, leaving Aaron to fend for himself. The Grand Hotel-style network narrative provides a microcosm of those who live through such times. The film is full of wonderful moments of insight into the human condition. The cast includes Karen Allen, Adrian Brody, Elizabeth McGovern and Spaulding Gray.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC version)-I’ve always preferred the original 1978 British television production of this to the Americanized theatrical version released several years afterwards. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), it is rife with the usual Potter obsessions: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by the occasional, incongruous song and dance number. Bob Hoskins is outstanding as a married traveling sheet music salesman in Depression-era England whose life takes interesting Potter-esque turns once he becomes smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two extremely creepy brothers. Probably best described as a film noir musical.

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Sullivan’s Travels-A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into more than he had bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. The Coen Brothers borrowed the title of the fictional film within the film for their own unique take on the Depression, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!” This richly decadent allegory about the human condition (adapted from Horace McCoy’s novel) is one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Director Sydney Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxes the wooden Michael Sarrazin into his finest performance. The powerful ending is devastating and difficult to shake off.

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Thieves Like Us-This loose remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film noir classic They Live by Night is the late Robert Altman’s most underrated film. It is often compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but stylistically speaking, the two films could not be farther apart. Altman’s tale of bank-robbing lovers on the lam (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) is far less flashy and stylized, but ultimately more affecting thanks to a consistently naturalistic, elegiac tone throughout. Carradine and Duvall really breathe life into their doomed couple; every moment of intimacy between them (not just sexual) feels warm, touching, and genuine-which gives the film some real heart. Altman adapted the screenplay (with co-writers Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham) from the same source novel (by Edward Anderson) that inspired Ray’s earlier film. Ripe for rediscovery.

 

SIFF 2016: Red Gringo ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I’m sure you’re familiar with Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic Reds, which is the tale of how American journalist-turned-political activist Jack Reed ended up buried with honors in the Kremlin? Miguel Angel Vidaurre’s documentary concerns another American who underwent a similar metamorphosis. Dean Reed (no relation) was a Colorado-born musician-turned-political activist who also ended up a Communist icon. Reed, a middling singing talent graced by teen-idol looks, landed a contract with Capitol Records in the early 60s. Virtually ignored in the U.S., he somehow caught fire in South America, where he became a huge pop idol and movie star. During a tour of Chile, he had an unanticipated political epiphany; sparking an entree into Marxism that switched his musical proclivities from bubblegum to agitpop. He eventually settled in East Germany where he met his untimely (and shadowy) end. Fascinating and absorbing.

By any other name: Trumbo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2015)

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Chris Hayes shared this Harry Truman quote on his MSNBC show, All In the other day:

 When we have these fits of hysteria, we are like the person who has a fit of nerves in public; when he recovers, he is very much ashamed…and so are we as a nation when sanity returns.

 –from Years of Trial and Hope, Volume 2

Hayes was doing a piece on the current political backlash and fear mongering (mostly from the Right) against Syrian immigrants in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. That quote from President Truman’s memoirs, Hayes pointed out, referred to the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s; his point being that, (as the French always say) plus ca change

Speaking of “timely”, one could draw many historical parallels with the present from Trumbo, a 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 nearly a decade of writing scripts under various pseudonyms).

The film begins in 1947, the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its initial “investigation” into whether or not Hollywood filmmakers were sneaking Communist propaganda into films; and if so, who was responsible. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other members of the industry (now immortalized as “The Hollywood Ten”) were summoned. All ten refused to cooperate. Their reward for standing on their convictions was…contempt convictions. This precipitated their inductions as premier members of the infamous blacklist (which, if one were to ask the studio suits that did the hiring, never officially existed). Trumbo ended up doing eleven months in the pen. The bulk of the film recounts his long, hard-won road to redemption.

Despite the somewhat rote narrative choices, I’m heartily recommending this film, for a couple reasons. First, for the performances. 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 prototype for Hunter S. Thompson (especially once he dons his dark glasses). He is ably supported by a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren (as odious gossip columnist/Red-baiter Hedda Hopper) Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s wife), Louis C.K. (his finest dramatic performance to date), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). John Goodman (as a boisterous and colorful low-budget film producer who is suspiciously reminiscent of the shlockmeister he played in Matinee) and Christian Berkel (as larger-than-life Austrian director, Otto Preminger) make the most of their small roles.

Screenwriter John McNamara (who adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo) plays it by-the-numbers; with broadly delineated heroes and villains (Trumbo himself conceded years later that there was “courage and cowardice […] good and bad on both sides”). While not as emotionally resonant as Martin Ritt’s similar 1976 dramedy, The Front (it’s tough to beat those end credit reveals that key members of that film’s cast and crew actually were victims of the blacklist), Roach’s film happily shares a like purpose; it provides something we need right now, more than ever…a Rocky for liberals.

Mingling with the help: The Second Mother ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

-George Bernard Shaw

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

 -George Burns

Let’s face it, even “typical” families are weird. I can’t imagine how much weirder it would be growing up in a family with an attendant “staff” lurking about. This dynamic has inspired myriad “upstairs/downstairs” narratives for novelists and screenwriters (it has certainly kept PBS afloat). That’s why I approached the latest film to use this timeworn trope, writer-director Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, with trepidation.

The story centers on an upper middle class Brazilian family, living in Sao Paolo. Their live-in housekeeper Val (Regina Case) has been with the family for a number of years, long enough to have become a nurturing “second mother” to 17 year-old Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).While Fabinho’s parents (Lourenco Mutarelli and Karine Teles) occasionally get careless and let their classist slips show, they accept Val as a de facto member of the family. Despite their privileged lifestyle, the family appears fairly “normal” and unassuming; and the dynamic between Val and her employers comfortable and familiar.

However, family skeletons are about to dance for our viewing pleasure. Yes, it’s the incursion of The Free-Spirited Outsider; in this case, Val’s estranged daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila). Val has not seen her daughter, who is around the same age as Fabhino, in nearly a decade; she is coming to Sao Paolo to apply at an architectural college. Val is jazzed about seeing her daughter, but nervous when she asks her employers if it’s okay for Jessica to bunk with her in her cramped maid’s quarters. To Val’s horror, Jessica “puts on airs” from the moment she arrives, casually asking to stay in the spacious guest room. Not a problem, say the gracious hosts. But it’s about to turn into one (no spoilers).

There’s a part of me that wants to say that I have reviewed this film many times before. That being said, there are two compelling reasons why I still recommend it: Regina Case and Camila Mardila. Both women give wonderful performances, but Case in particular is a joy to behold. This is my first awareness of her; from what I understand she has been a popular actress and comedienne for some time in her native Brazil, working in film, television and the theater. Her characterization of Val is warm, compassionate, earthy, and 100% believable. Muylaert’s sensitive direction is also a plus. It may not get an “A” for originality, but still has something to say about love, family and class struggle.

It’s just a jump to the Left (of Miami): Top 10 Cuba films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2015)

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

SIFF 2015: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If this rote recap of The Black Power Movement feels destined for PBS…it’s because it is. However, that shouldn’t deter you from catching it; it’s an eminently watchable (if not necessarily enlightening) look at an important corollary of the 1960s civil rights movement that, despite its failures and flaws, represents one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings in America. For a fresher perspective, check out The Black Power Mixtape (my review).

SIFF 2015: The Price of Fame **

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Well, this one looked good on paper (I had anticipated something along the lines of Melvin and Howard), but after a promising start, writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ “true crime” dramedy about a pair of bumbling, would-be extortionists falls curiously flat, despite earnest performances from an affable cast. The story is based on a late ‘70s incident in Switzerland in which two down-on-their-luck pals (played in the film by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem) cooked up a bizarre and ill-advised plan to dig up the coffin of the recently interred Charlie Chaplin and then hit his family up for money to have the body returned.

The caper itself takes a relative backseat to the main thrust of the film, which is ostensibly a character study. Therein lies the crux of the problem; these aren’t particularly interesting characters (at least as written). And the third act is nearly destroyed by that most dreaded of movie archetypes: the Maudlin Circus Clown. Beauvois’ idea to use Chaplin’s compositions for the soundtrack is clever, but he overdoes it. Peter Coyote does add an interesting turn as Chaplin’s longtime assistant.

Popsicle toes: Antarctica: a Year on Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2014)

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For decades now, my long-time Alaskan friends and I have speculated as to why no one has ever thought to produce a documentary about the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience shared by the thousands of men and women who worked on the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project back in the 1970s. From 1975-1977, I worked as a laborer on the project (that’s right…Fairbanks Local #942, baby!), doing 6-to-10 week stints in far-flung locales with exotic handles like Coldfoot, Old Man, Happy Valley, and the ever-popular Pump Station #3 (now that was one cold motherfucker).

These remote work camps, frequently the only bastions of “civilization” for hundreds of square miles in all directions, developed their own unique culture…part moon base, part Dodge City. It’s a vibe that is tough to explain to anyone who wasn’t actually there. Traditionally, I usually cite the sci-fi “western” Outland as the closest approximation. However, going forward I’ll defer to Anthony Powell’s Antarctica: a Year on Ice.

For once, someone has made a documentary about Earth’s southernmost polar region that contains barely a penguin in sight…or any sign of Morgan Freeman, for that matter. OK, there’s a wee bit of penguin footage, but no more than maybe 2 minutes total out of a 90-minute film, tops. And  know that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Freeman, one of America’s finest actors, and his undeniably mellifluous pipes…but enough with the voice overs, already (leave some scraps for Martin Sheen, for god’s sake). The narration is from the filmmaker himself, who toiled 15 years on this labor of love.

While there are breathtaking time-lapse sequences (reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi) capturing the otherworldly beauty of the continent, this is not so much standard-issue nature documentary as it is a kitchen sink social study of Antarctica’s (for wont of a better descriptive) “working class”. These are people with the decidedly less glamorous gigs than the scientists, biologists and geophysicists who usually get to hog the spotlight on the National Geographic Channel.

These are the administrators, store clerks, culinary staff, warehouse workers, electricians, mechanics, drivers, heavy equipment operators, etc. who help keep the infrastructure viable. Powell’s film not only serves to remind us of the universality of human psychology in extreme survival situations, but is imbued with a hopeful utopian undercurrent, best summarized by the very first line of Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty: “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”

Amen…and please pass the bunny boots.

Start the revolution without me: The Liberator **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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The stats on democratic revolutionary Simon Bolivar are pretty impressive. By the time he died at age 47 in 1830, he had waged over 100 battles against the Spanish throughout Central and South America, liberating and establishing the united territory of Gran Columbia (an area stretching south from the modern nations of Panama at one end and Peru at the other). He’s highly revered in Latin America to this day (hell, they even named Bolivia after him).

I wish I could say the same about Alberto Arvelo’s slickly produced yet cloyingly idealized biopic, The Liberator. It’s too bad, because charismatic leading man Edgar Ramirez gives it his best shot (and looks convincingly dashing wearing a waistcoat and wielding a saber), but Timothy J. Sexton’s script takes a Cliff’s Notes approach that skimps on Bolivar’s motivations.

What made him decide to give up his life as a wealthy country gentleman (who grew up on a family plantation maintained by slave labor, no less) and transform into “El Libertador“, freeing South America from the Spanish Empire? The epiphany is implied, but never fully explained; from watching the film, he may as well be Bruce Wayne donning a cape and transforming into Batman every night…and that’s all we need to know. Rousing battle scenes and lush period details are fine and dandy, but an historical epic ultimately requires some innate sense of history.

The 1% rundown: Child’s Pose ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 8, 2014)

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I’m sure you recall the “affluenza” case in Texas, in which a 16 year-old from a wealthy family received 10 year’s probation and a stint in rehab as “punishment” for killing four people in a drunk driving accident? A psychologist for the defense defined “affluenza” as an affliction unique to children of privilege; claiming that the young man’s coddled upbringing led to an inability to connect actions with consequences. We have to assume that he said this with a straight face, because judge and jury bought it. Which begs a question: Does the world have two justice systems…one for the rich and one for the poor?

Child’s Pose, a new film from Romanian writer-director Calin Peter Netzer, would seem to reinforce that suspicion. Shooting in a unfussy, Dogme 95-styled manner, and armed with a script (co-written by Razvan Radulescu) that blends droll satire with social realism, Netzer paints a portrait of contemporary Romanian class warfare through the eyes of a haughty bourgeoisie woman named Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu).

We are introduced to Cornelia, a middle-aged, well-to-do architect who power-puffs every cigarette like it’s her last, as she is lamenting to her sister (Natasa Raab) about her relationship with her adult son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). Why does she always have to initiate contact? He hasn’t phoned her for weeks…it must be that controlling wife of his (“That creature…she’s got him by his tail, like a little mouse.”). “Stop pestering him,” her sister says. It quickly becomes apparent that Cornelia is the one who has control issues.

Cornelia’s need to know every detail of Barbu’s life seems to go above and beyond the normal parental concerns. In a particularly telling scene, she invites her housekeeper (who she has hired to regularly clean her son’s home as well) to take a break and join her for a cup of coffee. Cornelia masterfully turns the chit-chat into an intelligence-gathering session. How is their place…”messy as usual”? When she dusted Barbu’s nightstand, did she happen to notice which book was there? Is it the one she recently sent, she wonders? Cornelia casually offers the maid a 200 Euro pair of shoes she found whilst cleaning out her closet; a payoff, disguised as an act of noblesse oblige.

One evening, Cornelia is attending an opera recital when she is suddenly torn away by her sister, who has bad news. Barbu is down at the police station; he has been involved in a car accident. He’s okay, but he has struck and killed a teenage boy. The look on Cornelia’s face speaks volumes. There’s none of the expected shock, or sense of panic. Rather, you can see all the gears turning. This is it. This is her “in”. Barbu is in trouble. Big trouble. But mama can help. Mama has her connections. She knows what to kiss, and when. She knows how the system works. She’s already formulating an action plan…not necessarily out of a maternal drive to “save” her son from jail, but to get him back under her thumb, where he belongs (Gheorghiu telegraphs all of this beautifully, wordlessly).

As you watch Cornelia serpentine her way though Bucharest like a preying viper, playing the cops, witnesses, and the victim’s working-class family like violins, it almost becomes a moot point that her spoiled, ne’er do well son is guilty as hell of negligent homicide. That’s because you’re so gob smacked by Cornelia’s gumption that you develop a morbid fascination with whether or not she is actually going to pull all this off. Of course, there would have to be some enabling factors involving the inherent corruption within “The System” as well, and Netzer doesn’t spare any barbs there either.

While some viewers may be put off by the deliberate pacing (I’ll confess it took me about 20 minutes to get in tune with what the film was even going to be about) those with patience will be rewarded. Gheorghiu’s performance is the most compelling reason to stick with it; she’s the most conniving, insufferably narcissistic maternal nightmare you’ll love to hate this side of Livia Drusilla .

It would be easy to say that the film’s message is “money talks, justice walks”, but the ambiguous denouement gives me pause. It seems that no victory that’s bought and paid for comes without a hidden cost. I’m not a religious man (had to look this up on Mr. Google) but how does that quote go…“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”? Erm, amen to that.