Tag Archives: 2009 Reviews

T minus-5: RIP Walter Cronkite

By Dennis Hartley

The passing of Walter Cronkite, just several days shy of this upcoming Monday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has added a bittersweet poignancy to the occasion that is hard for me to put into words. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories of being plunked in front of the TV are of being transfixed by the reassuring visage of Uncle Walter, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad behind him. Remember when the coverage of NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event, as opposed to a perfunctory sound bite sandwiched in between wall-to-wall minutiae about the latest celebrity death?

Good times.

I thought I’d toss out a few ideas for a little Uncle Walter Space Launch Memorial Film Festival in your media room this weekend:

The Right Stuff– Director-writer Philip Kaufman’s masterpiece (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring dramatization of the inspiring achievements by NASA’s original Mercury astronaut team. Considering it was made on a relative shoestring, the film has an amazingly expansive sense of historical scope. What keeps it all grounded, however are the richly drawn, down-to-earth characterizations that also makes it a very intimate story. It certainly didn’t hurt to have that dream cast-including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, and Levon Helm.

In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

The Dish-A wonderful little sleeper from Australia that is based on the true story of a relatively little-known but crucial component in facilitating the now-iconic live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon-a tracking station that was set up in the midst of a sheep farm in Parkes, New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s gentle culture-clash comedy (it’s very reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is unexpectedly moving and guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. Sitch and the same team of writers also collaborated on another personal favorite of mine called The Castle.

For All Mankind-A unique documentary culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts themselves over a period of years. There isn’t a lot of typical documentary-style exposition; it’s simply a continuous montage of imagery with narration provided strictly by the astronauts themselves. Coupled with Brian Eno’s ambient soundtrack, it has a hypnotic effect that recalls Koyaanisqatsi at times. Criterion recently released a restored DVD version.

Apollo 13-Although it feels overly formal and somber at times, Ron Howard’s straightforward dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. It does excel at giving the viewer a sense of the gnawing, claustrophobic tension that the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming a way out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have excellent chemistry  as crew mates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, respectively. Ed Harris was born to play Ground Control’s legendary flight director, Gene Kranz (the physical resemblance is uncanny).

Two new stars in heaven: RIP Ricardo Montalban & Patrick McGoohan

By Dennis Hartley

Ricardo Montalban was well known as a TV actor (Fantasy Island) and as the Chrysler Cordoba’s pitch man, but also had a number of film credits during his 66 year career. He never snagged an Oscar, but did earn an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He may not have been a critic’s darling, and was a frequent target of ridicule for late-night TV comics (which sometimes smacked uncomfortably of “unconscious” racism to me, like Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas shtick) but he always remained a classy, dependable performer with a powerful physical presence and charisma that served him well throughout his career.

A Mexico City native, he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1940s and made a name for himself in radio, theatre, film and TV, helping break down barriers along the way. He founded a non-profit organization (the Nosotros Foundation) dedicated to helping dismantle character stereotypes and to push open more doors for Hispanic performers. Vaya con dios, Don Ricardo.

Recommended viewing:

Border Incident-A typically taut and tough little noir from the underrated Anthony Mann features an excellent performance from Montalban as a Mexican police officer who goes undercover to help U.S. immigration officials bust an exploitative human smuggling ring.

Mystery Street-This is another early 50s noir with Montalban, this time as a Boston police lieutenant investigating the murder of a young woman whose bones are found on a beach. This was one of the first police procedurals to showcase the science of forensics.

Sayonara-This uneven 1957 culture clash drama (based on the James Michener novel) was primarily a vehicle for star Marlon Brando and has not dated very well, but Montalban had a memorable (if a bit oddly cast) role as a Japanese character. Go figure.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes-Although this franchise became sillier with each installment, this entry has its moments, including a likeable performance by Montalban as the kindly carny who adopts the baby chimp who grows up to become…oh, never mind.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan-“Khaaaaahnn!!” Montalban’s turn as the charismatic leader of a renegade group of genetically tweaked supermen not only presented Shatner’s Captain Kirk with a formidable nemesis, but an equally hammy acting partner as well.

Alas, more sad news to report. No. 6 has also left The Island. Patrick McGoohan, like Ricardo Montalban, had an eclectic career as an actor (theatre, film and TV) but will be best remembered for his work on the small screen. The brooding Irish actor (actually born in Astoria, N.Y., oddly enough) became synonymous with two memorable British TV characters in the 1960s: John Drake (in Danger Man, aka Secret Agent Man on this side of the pond) and the enigmatic “No. 6” in the short-lived summer replacement series which has become a long-running cult phenom, The Prisoner.

Now, there are some who may go to great lengths to convince you that “John Drake” and “No. 6” are one and the same person…but I’m not going to open that can of worms (oops, I may have already done so). I admit to owning the series on DVD, but I can’t tell you with 100% confidence that I’ve got it all sussed, despite repeated viewings over the years (even McGoohan took its cryptic subtexts with him…erm, to his grave). Maybe that was his point? Be seeing you!

Recommended viewing:

All Night Long-This rarely screened curio is (literally) a jazzed-up retooling of Othello, with McGoohan starring as a conniving musician (he’s not half-bad on the drums). Cameos by Dave Brubeck, Charlies Mingus and other jazz stars lend a certain hip factor.

Ice Station Zebra-This all-star Cold War thriller is still best appreciated in its original Cinerama format. McGoohan plays (surprise) an enigmatic heavy (or is he?). Directed by John Sturges (who also helmed Mystery Street, on my Montalban list above).

Silver Streak-Director Arthur Hiller and screenwriter Colin Higgins teamed up for this Hitchcock homage that takes place on a train. Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh and Richard Pryor steal the show, but McGoohan is “on board” as The Heavy (again). Choo-choo!

Scanners-This early effort from the twisted David Cronenberg is not his best, but as far as movies with exploding noggins go, it’s a ”head” above the rest. Performances range from bad to wooden (McGoohan is the only real actor in the cast) but it’s still a cult fave.

Braveheart-We’re gonna party like it’s 1299! Mel Gibson’s testosterone ‘n’ kilts fest (file under: “Sort of” Historical Epic) featured one of McGoohan’s better latter-day film performances as Edward Longshanks-the king everyone loved to hate “back in the day”.

And I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Mr. McGoohan than this somewhat obscure music video gem from one of my favorite 1980s British power-pop outfits, The Times:

 

Creepy lodgers and seedy inns: 10 worst places to stay in the movies

By Dennis Hartley

Where the wild things are.

“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So states a character in the 1932 classic, Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never stayed in any of the caravansaries on tonight’s top ten list, where the bad experiences go a bit beyond iffy room service or a fly in the soup. So on this spooky Halloween evening, I triple dog dare you to check in to any of these flops! Per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order. Um, enjoy your stay…

 

The film: Barton Fink

Where not to stay: The Hotel Earle

This is one of two films on my list involving blocked writers and eerie hotels (I’ll entertain anyone’s theory on why they seem to go hand-in-hand). The Coen brothers bring their usual sense of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this story (set in the early 1940s) of a New York playwright with “integrity” (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to transplant himself to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the very least of his problems. The film is a very close cousin to Day of the Locust, although perhaps slightly less grotesque and more darkly funny. John Goodman and Judy Davis are also on hand, and in top form.

 

The film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Where not to stay: The Mint Hotel

Okay, so the hotel in this one isn’t so bad. It’s the behavior going on in one of the rooms:

When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD… These were not the hoof prints of your average God-fearing junkie. It was too savage. Too aggressive.

Terry Gilliam’s manic, audience-polarizing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic blend of gonzo journalism and hilariously debauched, anarchic invention may be too savage and aggressive for some, but it’s one of those films I am compelled to revisit on an annual basis. Johnny Depp’s turn as Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke, is one for the ages. My favorite line: “You’d better pray to God there’s some Thorazine in that bag.”

 

The film: Key Largo

Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel

Humphrey Bogart gives a smashing performance as a WW2 vet who drops by a Florida hotel to pay his respects to its proprietors- the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of the men who had served under his command. Initially just “passing through”, he is waylaid by a convergence of two angry tempests: an approaching hurricane and the appearance of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Rocco is a notorious gangster, who, along with his henchmen, takes the hotel residents hostage while they ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in one of his earlier starring vehicles, The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The entire cast is spectacular. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.

 

The film: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Where not to stay: Mrs. Bunting’s Lodging House

Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady and all, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility that he is “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? No worries, I’m not going to spoil it for you! This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but IMHO none of them can touch Hitchcock’s 1927 silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

 

The film: Motel Hell

Where not to stay: Motel Hello

OK, all together now (you know the words!): “It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” Rory Calhoun gives a sly performance as the cheerfully psychotic Vincent Smith, proprietor of the Motel Hello (oh my, there seems to be an electrical short in the neon “O”. Bzzzt!). Funny thing is, no one ever seems to check in (no one certainly ever checks out). Vincent and his oddball sister (Nancy Parsons) prefer to concentrate on the, ah, family’s “world-famous” smoked meat business. Despite the exploitative horror trappings, Kevin Conner’s black comedy (scripted by brothers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe) is a surprisingly smart genre spoof and actually quite well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.

 

The film: Mystery Train

Where not to stay: The Arcade Hotel

Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that features Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

 

The film: The Night of the Iguana

Where not to stay: The Hotel Costa Verde

Director John Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller adapted this sordid, blackly comic soaper from Tennessee Williams’ twisty stage play about a defrocked, self-loathing minister (Richard Burton) who has expatriated himself to Mexico, where he has become a part-time tour guide and a full-time alcoholic. One day he really goes off the deep end, and shanghais a busload of Baptist college teachers to an isolated, rundown hotel run by an “old friend” (Ava Gardner). Throw in a sexually precocious teenager (Sue Lyon, recycling her Lolita persona) and an itinerant female grifter with a deceptively prim and proper exterior (Deborah Kerr), and stir. Most of the Williams archetypes are present and accounted for: dipsomaniacs, nymphets, repressed lesbians and neurotics of every stripe. The bloodletting is mostly verbal, but mortally wounding all the same. Burton and Kerr are great, as always. I think this is my favorite Ava Gardner performance; she’s earthy, sexy, heartbreaking, intimidating, and endearingly girlish-all at once (“I wanna Coke!”).

 

The film: The Night Porter

Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper

Disturbing, repulsive, yet compelling, Liliana Cavani’s film brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently getting lumped together with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. That’s a real shame.

 

The film: Psycho

Where not to stay: Bates Motel

Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s creepy taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what director Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant shocker from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. Anthony Perkins sets the bar pretty high for all future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

 

The film: The Shining

Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel

Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel. Fuck him-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest horror film ever made. Period. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers…oh. Sorry. Uh, never mind…

Happy Halloween, everyone!

 

Art is a strange hotel: Chelsea on the Rocks **

By Dennis Hartley

Bill and Andy’s excellent adventure.

Since 1883, the Hotel Chelsea in New York City has been considered to be the center of the universe by bohemian culture vultures. It has been the hostelry of choice for the holiest of hipster saints over the years, housing just about anybody who was anybody in the upper echelons of poets, writers, playwrights, artists, actors, directors, musicians and free thinkers over the past century. Some checked in whenever they were in town, and some lived as residents for years on end. Some checked out forever within its walls over the years (from Dylan Thomas to Sid Vicious’ ill-fated girlfriend, Nancy Spungen). Of course, not every single resident was a luminary, but chances always were that they were someone who had a story or two to tell. Abel Ferrara, a director who has been known to spin a sordid New York tale or two (China Girl, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral) has attempted to paint a portrait of the hotel with his new documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks-with mixed results.

Blending interviews with current residents with archival footage and docu-drama vignettes, Ferrara tackles this potentially intriguing subject matter in frustrating fits and starts. He never decides whether he wants to offer up a contextualized history, an impressionistic study, or simply a series of “So tell me your favorite Chelsea anecdote” stories (ranging from genuinely funny or harrowing to banal and/or incomprehensible).

The most fascinating parts of the film to me were the relatively brief bits of archival footage. For instance, a fleeting 15 or 20 second clip of Andy Warhol and William Burroughs sharing a little repast in one of the hotel’s rooms vibes much more of the essence of what the Chelsea was “about” in its heyday than (for the sake of argument) a seemingly endless present-day segment with director Milos Forman holding court and swapping memories with Ferrara in the lobby, during which neither manages to say anything of much interest to anyone but each other.

There is a lack of judicious editing in the film, and therein lies its fatal flaw. Ferrara has an annoying habit of jabbering on in the background while his interviewees are speaking, to the point where it starts to feel too “inside” and exclusionary to the viewer. This is exacerbated by the fact that no present-day interviewees are identified. While some of them were easy for me to spot (Robert Crumb, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper and the aforementioned Milos Forman) the majority of them were otherwise obscure (perhaps I’d recognize them from their work, if I at least had a name).

You get the impression that the director made this film for himself and his circle of peers, and it’s a case of “Well, if you aren’t part of the New York art scene and have to ask who these people are, then you obviously aren’t hip enough for the room.” He lures you into the lobby, but alas, can’t convince you to check in for the night.

This film is rated NCC-1701: Star Trek ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullbaloo on May 16, 2009)

Wait a sec…these guys look familiar. Where have I…

Ah! Sie sind von die Zukunft!

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather the 1000-yard stare he possessed. It was a look that spoke volumes. It was a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…okay, I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely. Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

You can only recycle a movie brand so many times before there is no where left to go but back to the beginning. The James Bond series reached that point with Casino Royale in 2006, 44 years after Dr. No. It now appears that the Star Trek franchise (blowing out 43 candles this year) has taken a cue from 007, and gone back to unearth its “first” mission.

Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers (as well as the, um, next generation) that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

The filmmakers seem shrewd enough to realize that while it may not matter to casual moviegoers that the principal characters are being somewhat “re-imagined”, they still have to take steps to ensure that they do not provoke a fanboy jihad. And the best way to tap dance your way into obsessive Trekkers’ little pointy-eared hearts? Incorporate the original Roddenberry ethos. As box office numbers indicate, they have the “live long and prosper” part down, but-how does the film hold up in the “ethos” department, you may ask?

Rather nicely, actually. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is suitably bold, charismatic, and cocky. And he is younger than usual. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is suitably hyper-intelligent, stalwart and coolly logical. He’s also younger than usual. And he is older than usual; but I won’t go into that (it’s no secret that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance-so you can figure it out from there). Not that the plot really matters. Suffice it to say that it involves a time-traveling Romulan (Eric Bana, heavily disguised by the prosthetic face and oddly resembling Anthony Zerbe in The Omega Man) who is stalking Spock throughout the continuum for his own nefarious reasons.

The reason  plot doesn’t matter is because the best Star Trek stories are character-driven; specifically concerning the interplay between the principal crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And it is here that director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have delivered in spades. The actors are given just enough signature lines to establish a reassuring nod and a wink to those in the audience who are familiar with the original characterizations; yet thankfully they have been directed to make the roles very much their own, never sinking into a self-conscious parody or merely “doing an impression” of their respective original cast member.

Pine and Quinto are quite adept at capturing the core dynamic of the relationship between Kirk and Spock as it was originally (and so indelibly) established by Shatner and Nimoy. Karl Urban steals all his scenes as Dr. McCoy, and in the film’s most inspired bit of casting, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) proves a perfect choice as Chief Engineer Scott. Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively) round off the principal crew members, tackling their relatively lesser roles with much aplomb.

The film is not wholly without its flaws (a lackluster villain, so-so special effects) but the tight direction, sharply written dialog and energetic young cast outweigh any negatives. Hell, this one might even shatter my “even numbers rule” (it’s the eleventh film, if you’re counting). I know this isn’t 100% kosher, but I’m rating Star Trek 4 out of 5 possible Honeybakcd Hams. And it was a pleasure serving you, Mr. Doohan. Wherever you are.

SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Sometimes I get a little bit of a twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film (and not in a good way). In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin (remember that name!).

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night). In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a bit of a rock star in the group, due to the savvy she has developed in working the system to her maximum advantage (she’s crazy, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

SIFF 2009: Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s ****

By Dennis Hartley

Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s is such a perfect film, that I’m almost afraid to review it. It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of your most carefree childhood memories, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

Set on the cusp of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966 (my guess), the story centers around the suburban Gauvin family. Teenaged Elise (Marianne Fortier) and her two young brothers are thrilled that school’s out for the summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; the beautiful Simone (Celine Bonnier) works as a TV journalist and her handsome husband Le Pere (Laurent Lucas) is a microbiologist. But alas, there is trouble in River City . When a marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, young Elise suddenly  finds herself as the de facto head of the family.

Thanks to the sensitive direction from Lea Pool, an intelligent and believable screenplay by Isabelle Hebert, and  some of the most extraordinary performances by child actors that I’ve seen in quite some time, I found myself completely transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. You know… that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).

This is one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen recently. Daniel Jobin’s DP work should receive some kind of special award from Quebec’s tourist board, because watching this film gave me an urge to take a crash course in Quebecois, pack some fishing gear and move there immediately. This is my personal favorite at this year’s SIFF, and I hope that it finds wider distribution- tres bientot.

SIFF 2009: OSS 117: Lost in Rio ***

By Dennis Hartley

SIFF’s Closing Night Gala selection this year is OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is the sequel to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was a huge hit at the festival back in 2006. Who is this “OSS 117” of which I speak, you may ask? He is the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged, and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who is played once again to comic perfection by Jean Dujardin. In my review of the first film, I described why I thought Dujardin was a real discovery:

He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling that matches Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

After viewing the second entry in this series, I have to stand by my assertion that Dujardin is a bloody genius. In this outing (which moves the time line ahead about 10 years or so to the Summer of Love) Hubert is assigned to assist a trio of Israeli Mossad agents as they hunt down the son of a Nazi war criminal in South America. As in the first film, the plot is really moot here; it’s all about the killer combo of Dujardin’s riotous characterization and director Michel Hazanavicius’ knack for distilling the very quintessence of those classic 60s spy capers. As I noted in my review of the first film:

Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains  true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody. The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries…you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I will say that some of the novelty of the character has worn off (that’s the sophomore curse that any sequel has to weather) but this is still a thoroughly entertaining film, and I hope that Hazanavicius and Dujardin have some more projects on the horizon. I’m there.

SIFF 2009: Mid-August Lunch ***

By Dennis Hartley

Eccentric ladyland.

And now for a palette cleanser…a wonderful slice-of-life charmer from Italy called Mid-August Lunch (aka Pranza di ferragosto). The film was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the gangster drama Gomorra). Slight in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. Giovanni doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of her is his “job”. He says that without a hint of irony; in fact Giovanni seems to enjoy being his mother’s fulltime caregiver. He is the quintessential “good son”, from cooking her a fresh breakfast in the morning to tucking her in at night.

Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his almost saintly countenance is put to the test when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion to the countryside with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent due on the apartment, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up the next day with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call to give him a routine checkup, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy). The setup is kind of like an “inside-out” variation on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, now that I think about it.

This is one of those magical little films where you’re not constantly being reminded that there’s a person behind the camera making “life” happen, but rather, life seems to be happening around the person behind the camera (if you catch my meaning). It’s all the little moments that really make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying some white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into the more soap opera-ish aspects of Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with his protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (the plan didn’t work). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. The most well-known example is reenacted, which is the time that Meek turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.

Still, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-de-force, and he is ably supported by some other fine turns, particularly from Tom Burke, who plays the supremely odd and spooky Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve some of those pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and frequently provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.