Category Archives: Writers

SIFF 2017: Endless Poetry ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini western El Topo single-handedly redefined the meaning of “WTF?” for cult movie aficionados, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book writer Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the envelope on all creative fronts. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as an aspiring poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only conveys that its creator possesses the soul of a poet, but stands, in and of itself, as an almost tactile evocation of poetry’s soul.

Writer’s block: Top 10 films about writers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 29, 2017)

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With the possibility of a Writer’s Guild strike looming over the entertainment industry this week, I’ve been pondering myriad films I have seen that are about screenwriters, novelists, journalists, poets, and playwrights. Here are 10 cinematic page-turners for you:

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American SplendorFrom the streets of Cleveland! Paul Giamatti was born to play underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, the misanthropic file clerk/armchair philosopher who became a cult figure after collaborating with legendary comic illustrator R. Crumb on some classic strips. Co-directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini keep their film fresh and engaging using imaginative visual devices and by breaking down the “fourth wall”. A virtually unrecognizable Hope Davis gives a great turn as Pekar’s deadpan wife.

Written by: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, and Robert Pulcini

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An Angel at My Table-Jane Campion directed this incredibly moving story of successful New Zealand novelist Janet Frame (beautifully played at various stages of her life by three actresses, most notably Kerry Fox). When she was a young woman, her social phobia and generalized anxiety was misdiagnosed as a serious mental illness and she ended up spending nearly a decade in and out of institutions. Not for the faint of heart.

Written by: Janet Frame and Laura Jones.

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Barfly-It’s the battle of the quirky method actors as Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway guzzle rye and wax wry in this booze-soaked dark comedy, based on the experiences of writer/poet Charles Bukowski. The film is quite richly drawn, right down to the smallest bit parts. Look for Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank as a bartender who repeatedly beats the crap out of Rourke (I’d bet Rourke could take him in a real-life scrap!). If you’re up for a double feature, I’d suggest the compelling documentary Bukowski: Born into This.

Written by: Charles Bukowski.

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The Front-Directed by Martin Ritt, this downbeat yet politically rousing tale uses the entertainment industry’s spurious McCarthy era blacklist as a backdrop. Woody Allen is very effective as a semi-literate bookie who ends up “fronting” for several blacklisted TV writers. Zero Mostel is brilliant in a tragicomic performance (Mostel, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and several other participants in the film actually were blacklisted in real life).

Written by: Walter Bernstein.

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Henry and June– Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as the gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the time period that Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the frequent nudity and focus on eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted, fascinating character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Directed by Philip Kaufman.

Written by: Anais Nin, Philip Kaufman, and Rose Kaufman.

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In a Lonely Place – “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay. At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect. An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in to give him an unsolicited alibi. A marvelous film noir, directed by Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent screenplay full of twists and turns that keep you guessing until the end. It’s a precursor to Basic Instinct.

Written by: Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North (from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes).

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The Owl and the Pussycat-George Segal is a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

Written by: Bill Manhoff and Buck Henry.

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Prick Up Your Ears-Gary Oldman chews major scenery in this biopic about British playwright Joe Orton, who lived fast and died young. Alfred Molina nearly steals the film as Orton’s lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell was a middling writer who had a complex, love-hate obsession with his partner’s effortless artistic gifts (you might say he played Salieri to Orton’s Mozart). This obsession led to a shocking and heartbreaking tragedy. Director Stephen Frears captures the exuberance of “swinging” 1960s London to a tee.

Written by: Alan Bennett and John Lahr.

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Reuben, Reuben-Director Robert Ellis Miller’s underrated gem (from 1983) features Tom Conti as a boozing, womanizing Scottish poet (reminiscent of Sean Connery’s character in the 1966 satire A Fine Madness). Conti’s character (he’s not “Reuben”, incidentally) spends more time getting himself in trouble than writing poetry, and is always on the prowl for wealthy patrons. The inspiration for the enigmatic title isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film. Also with Kelly McGillis (in her film debut).

Written by: Peter De Vries, Herman Shumlin, and Julius J. Epstein.

Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2017)

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But alas, it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or at construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is largely on the money whenever he interjects contemporary images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, at the end of the day they were produced by white liberals, to be exclusively consumed by other white liberals, who could then pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (unless I was reading him wrong). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a bit of a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top of my review that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it another retread “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although its history is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin was not an active participant in the literal sense (which he admits in some excerpts), yet he was wholly present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator.

And indeed it is these insights and observations that stay with you after the lights come up. In a way it makes me sad that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate, because it serves to remind that while we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never really went away. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Blu-ray reissue: In A Lonely Place ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In a Lonely Place – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

 It’s apropos that a film about a writer would contain a soliloquy that any writer would kill to have written: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay (it helps his process).

At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect (mostly due to his unflagging wisecracking). An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in at a crucial moment to give him an unsolicited alibi (and really spice things up).

A marvelous film noir, directed by the great Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent script (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes) that is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right up until the end. It’s a precursor (of sorts) to Basic Instinct (or it could have been a direct influence, for all I know). Criterion’s 2K transfer is outstanding. Extras include a slightly condensed 1975 documentary about Ray.

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Here’s to bad taste: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Not that anyone asked (or gives a rat’s ass), but if pressed to name the Holy Trinity of influences on my work over the years as a radio personality, stand-up comic and writer, I would cite The Firesign Theatre, Monty Python and The National Lampoon (gee…can you tell that my formative years were the late 60s thru the mid-70s?).

If there is one thing that members of the Trinity all share in common, it’s a strict adherence to the #1 rule of comedy: Nothing is Sacred. It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned flourished concurrently, in the early to mid-70s; if they were coming on the scene only now with original comic sensibilities intact, the P.C. police would have them all sitting on Death Row within a matter of hours.

Long before YouTube, we pawed through things called “humor magazines” for a laugh fix. They were made from trees, printed with ink, and purchased from comically tiny brick and mortar stores called “newsstands”. If I saw something really funny in the magazine that I had to share with my friends, I would have to literally share the magazine with my friends. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that the publishers of The National Lampoon developed the following formula to determine readership: the number of subscribers, x 12 (the number of people an average subscriber shared their copy with).

This is one of the fun facts in Douglas Tirola’s breezy documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. After a perfunctory preface about roots in the venerable Harvard Lampoon, Tirola devotes most of his film profiling the magazine’s original gang of editors and writers, which included Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, Chris Miller, Tony Hendra, and (future screenwriter/film director) John Hughes.

He does a nice job of tracing how the magazine’s subversive mashup of highbrow Ivy League irony and lowbrow frat boy vulgarity begat Saturday Night Live (many of that show’s first batch of writers and performers were recruited from Lampoon’s magazine, LPs and stage productions), which in turn begat Animal House; precipitating a paradigm shift in a generation’s comic id that resonates to this day. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on your sense of humor.

Out there, in the dark: Life Itself ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 5, 2014)

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When the long-running TV program At the Movies quietly packed its bags and closed the balcony for good back in 2010, I wrote a piece about the profound impact that the show had on me in its various incarnations over the years; first as a film buff and later on as a critic:

Back in the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for an obsessive movie buff. At the time, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. And keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road as well […] Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed like it was requisite to actually live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of the films they reviewed didn’t make it out to the sticks) […]

Then, in 1978, our local PBS affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics […] In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies […] This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic […]

 One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

 After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert kept the show going whilst essentially auditioning an interestingly diverse roster of guest critics for several months, with fellow Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Richard Roeper eventually winning the permanent seat across the aisle. Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until 2006, when treatment for his thyroid cancer began. Of course, Roger Ebert’s life journey didn’t end there, just as it had already taken many twists and turns before his fame as a TV personality. In fact, it is these bookends that provide the most compelling elements in Life Itself, a moving, compassionate and surprisingly frank portrait from acclaimed documentary film maker Steve James (Hoop Dreams).

The film covers the full breadth of Ebert’s professional life as a journalist; beginning with his fledgling days as a reporter and reviewer for The Daily Illini while attending the University of Illinois in the early 60s, to his embrace of new media during that personally challenging (and very public) final chapter of his life, wherein he was able to reinvent himself as a sociopolitical commentator (which he pursued with the same passion, candor and intelligence that defined his oeuvre as America’s most respected film critic).

Despite the fact that the film was made with the full blessing and cooperation of its subject (and his widow), this is not a hagiography. To be sure, Ebert was a gifted, amazingly prolific Pulitzer Prize winning writer, the premier film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013, an instantly relatable, beloved TV personality with a killer hook (“Thumbs up!” or “Thumbs down!”) and by most accounts an engaging raconteur and generally warm and empathetic human being…but he was, after all, a human being. He could also be arrogant, obstinate, and petty (James includes some eye-opening outtakes from At the Movies that are quite damning). He had a long-time battle with the bottle (which he freely admitted, in interviews and in his memoir).

Yet he also showed us, at the end of it all, how silly it is to sweat the small stuff, and how important it is to follow your bliss, in spite of circumstance. Ebert’s insistence that the director not shy his cameras away from the hellishness of his final months may seem morbid (and granted, the unblinking nature of that footage is difficult to watch and may even be a deal breaker for some viewers), but in hindsight I think it was his way of reminding us of the old proverb: “I cried because I had no shoes…until I met a man who had no feet.” Yes, he suffered terribly, and became physically unrecognizable as the same erudite, Falstaffian Everyman who sat across the aisle from Gene and bantered about the latest Scorsese film on my little 13 inch TV with rabbit ears and fuzzy reception all those years ago; but he never lost the muse, or his true voice, which came through in his prose.

I have to say it. I’m giving this film a thumbs up. Until next week…the balcony’s closed.

Quirky lodgings: The Grand Budapest Hotel ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 15, 2014)

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In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics (even the normally discerning Criterion Collection seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid).

Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? Am I wrong to feel that Plan 9 From Outer Space should be supplanted by The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou as Worst Movie of All Time? To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession to make. I kind of enjoyed Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A lot. I know, I know, I was just as shocked as you are right now. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to his previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

Perhaps it was the casting. Ralph Fiennes is a delight as the central character, Gustave H., a “legendary” concierge at the eponymous establishment, a luxurious mountain resort housed in the mythical eastern European Republic of Zubrowka. His story (the bulk of which takes place between the World Wars) is told in flashback, as recollected decades later to a young writer (Jude Law) by the hotel’s owner, the “mysterious” Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

Young Zero (Tony Revolori) was originally hired by Gustave as a lobby boy, but eventually becomes his protege and closest confidante. When rich eccentric Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) a longtime hotel patron who has enjoyed Gustave’s additional “special services” over the years, dies, she leaves her favorite concierge a priceless heirloom painting in her will, much to the chagrin of her greedy heirs, spurred by her unscrupulous son (Adrien Brody). Knowing that Madame D.’s family will never willingly surrender the treasure, Gustave and Zero abscond with it on a whim. Gustave is framed for murder and gets shipped off to prison, but not before striking a pact with the devoted Zero, making him his sole heir.

What ensues is part Arnold Fanck (DP Robert D. Yeoman’s beautiful cinematography cannily emulates the look of the German “mountain films” of the 1930s), part Ernst Lubitsch, and part Herge (in fact, Anderson’s film played closer to a Tintin adventure to me than Spielberg’s actual Adventures of Tintin did). The huge supporting cast is peppered by familiar faces (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Wilkinson). Saoirse Ronan is a charmer as Zero’s love interest. I still can’t pinpoint where Anderson went so “right” (aside from instilling his story and characters with a hint of emotional resonance for once) but I’d dare say this is the most entertaining film I’ve seen so far this year (stranger things have happened). By the way…when did those ball players get here?

SIFF 2014: Regarding Susan Sontag ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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There’s much to regard in Nancy Kate’s enlightening documentary about the complex private and public life of the iconic intellectual polymath. Kate is deft at deconstructing, then reassembling all of the “Susan Sontags” (cultural critic, activist, feminist pioneer, provocateur) into a rich portrait. Great archival footage; in my favorite clip Sontag cleans the floor with some wingnut who questions her “patriotism” for her pragmatic essay about the 9/11 attacks (we could sure use her now).