Tag Archives: 2010 Reviews

Big Star in heaven: RIP Alex Chilton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

O My Soul:  Alex Chilton, 1951-2010

In the early to mid 70s, a then yet-to-be-named rock ‘n’ roll subgenre emerged. It was a sound that took chiming Beatlesque harmonies and jangly Roger Mcguinn chord shapes, threw in a dash of The Who, Small Faces and the Kinks, plugged it all into a Marshall stack and said all that it had to say in 3 minutes. Thusly, “power pop” was born. For my money, the Holy Trinity of its first wave was Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Big Star. The latter outfit proved to be the most influential, paving the way for bands like Cheap Trick, The Flamin’ Groovies and Pezband, kicking the door open for early 1980s New Wave power poppers like The Plimsouls, 20/20, The Records, The Shoes and The dBs.

Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton may not be a household name, but to power pop aficionados, he is an icon; I was saddened to hear of his death this week at age 59. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever a Big Star staple like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “September Gurls”, or “Back of a Car” pops up in my mp3 player’s shuffle. Anyone who has heard “The Letter” by his first band, the Boxtops will surely recognize his voice (unbelievably, the owner of those soulful pipes was only 16 at the time).

I once had the pleasure of seeing Chilton perform here in Seattle during a Big Star revival tour, with a lineup that included original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, along with local musicians Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies (one of the better contemporary power pop bands). It was a magical evening, with the 50-ish Chilton demonstrating to the crowd that he still had “it”. Please join me, as we bow our heads for a four-chord salute:

I owe my soles to the company store: Repo Men **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

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Inside scoopers: Jude Law and Forest Whitaker in Repo Men

You could say that the new sci-fi action thriller Repo Men is a film with heart-as well as kidneys, livers, lungs and the odd spleen. David Cronenberg meets John Woo at the corner of Brazil and Logan’s Run in this dystopian vision of a near-future in which life-extending high-tech advancements in organ replacement have become available to all.

Teabaggers needn’t panic-it isn’t a government-sponsored health care program; as long as you flash a credit card, make a down payment and sign up for an EZ installment plan, you too can be the happy recipient of a shiny new mechanical bladder (hopefully bereft of any “sudden acceleration” issues). There is one catch. If your account goes delinquent, a repo man is sent to retrieve it…with no regards as to anything else it might be attached to.

Organ repo is a messy job, but somebody has to do it; somebody who is stealthy, skilled with knives, impervious to pleas for mercy, has a good gag reflex and doesn’t mind paperwork. Remy (Jude Law) and his long time partner Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two such men. For example, Jake has no problem excusing himself from a backyard barbecue  to perform a quick “favor”-the unceremonious disembowelment of a deadbeat client in the driveway, then returning to the business of grilling hot dogs and shooting the shit with family and co-workers. As he reminds Remy, “A job… is a job.”

Remy has been suffering through a personal crisis . His wife (Carice van Houten) is at the end of her rope; she’s tired of him leapngi out of bed at 3am to go running off into the night so he can yank out some hapless debtor’s entrails in order to keep food on the table. Under threat of separation, she’s pressuring him to go into sales-but he’s a repo man, through and through, and knows he’s not, erm, cut out for sales (you could say he’s more of an “opener” than a “closer”). The weaselly head of sales (Liev Schreiber) knows that as well-Remy is his number one man in the field, and he’d prefer to keep him there.

Fate intervenes when Remy suffers a heart attack while out on a call. Awakening from a coma, he discovers that he’s being kept alive with a “Jarvik-39”. The bad news is that he can’t recall signing the sales contract that now makes him an indebted client of his own employer, which makes him subject to that fine print about overdue accounts. I’ll give you three guesses as to what happens next.

Although Repo Men borrows freely from the films I mentioned earlier, it is directed with a certain amount of verve by Miguel Sapochnik. The screenplay, adapted by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner from Garcia’s own novel The Repossession Mambo, works best when it waxes satirical, which helps take the edge off the gruesome aspects.

Although I am quite squeamish when it comes to blood and guts, the “repossessions” didn’t bother me; perhaps because it was so over the top as to be cartoonish. The action scenes are stylish and well-choreographed, which moves things along. One kinky and visceral scene sure to have audiences buzzing involves Law and Alice Braga (as a character who is like the Bionic Woman-with bad credit). I wouldn’t exactly call it a “sex” scene, but it is consensual, and does involve penetration (that’s all I’m prepared to disclose at this time).

I’ve gleaned some fan boy hysteria on the web concerning this film’s alleged similarities to the indie musical Repo: The Genetic Opera, which I have not seen, nor frankly had ever heard of until I was doing some background research for my review. So alas, I can only offer ambivalence regarding this particular issue. Then again, if I allowed myself to lose sleep over every Hollywood script that was cloned from another Hollywood script, I would suffer terminal insomnia.

It is kismet that the film is opening just as the health care bill debacle is coming to a head. I’m sure the filmmakers see that merely as happy coincidence, as I didn’t sense any purposeful political subtext (aside that one could interpret the film to represent the speculative extreme of an unregulated free market-health care system, just as Robocop did for the concept of corporate-run law enforcement). Aw, hell, I’m thinking too much. See it for the cool action scenes.

Two new stars in heaven: Tony Curtis and Arthur Penn

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2010)

Match me, Sidney: RIP Tony Curtis 1925-2010

Tony Curtis was likely better known to the general public in recent years from his appearances on TV talk shows (and as Jamie Lee Curtis’ dad), but for those of us “of a certain age” he was, and will always remain, a Movie Star-in the classic sense. He may not have vibed the smoldering, “Method” intensity of contemporaries like Monty Clift, Brando or James Dean, but there was no denying that he was ridiculously handsome, charismatic, and possessed of an effortless versatility (the latter of which many critics seemed to overlook-undoubtedly due to that Bronx honk). Granted, the bulk of his best work may have been behind him by the late 60s, but it’s still an impressive body of work.

I’m sure that the majority of people would say that his memorable pairing with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s wonderful and riotous 1959 screwball romp Some Like It Hot rates as their favorite Tony Curtis performance, but for me, that runs a close second to his role as the slime ball press agent Sidney Falco in the 1957 film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis gives a knockout performance as the toady who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen .

Although it was made 50 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

Rounding off my Top 10: The Boston Strangler (Curtis received a Golden Globe nomination), The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat, Spartacus, The Great Imposter, Houdini, The Vikings, and Insignificance (1985 Nicolas Roeg sleeper-highly recommended!).

American maverick: RIP Arthur Penn 1922-2010

And alas, more sad news-we also lost an artist of note from the other side of the camera this week. Director Arthur Penn was responsible for crafting some of the most significant films of the late 60s to mid 70s (America’s “golden age” of the maverick moviemakers). He was a filmmaker of great intelligence and vision, with deep roots in the theater (which I’m sure is what helped make him such a great “actor’s director” as well).

Most of the more perfunctory obits floating around the last several days might give casual film goers the impression that the only movie he ever made was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde; and while the importance of that breakthrough work cannot be overstated, one certainly cannot ignore a resume that also includes The Miracle Worker, Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man (in which Penn reinvented the western just as surely as he reinvented the crime drama with his 1967 masterpiece). My personal favorites by this director, however, are two less-heralded efforts, which I feel are also two of the best post-1950s film noirs.

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Mickey One –Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death).

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The other Penn film that I feel compelled to return to now and then is Night Moves. In this 1975 sleeper, which you could call an existential noir, Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s multi-layered screenplay cleverly parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail.

More Penn to explore: Four Friends, The Missouri Breaks, Target, The Chase.

 

DVD Reissue: Max Headroom ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)

Video killed the radio star

And then committed suicide

Doug Powell, “Empty Vee”

The original maven of the matrix has returned. The belated release of ABC-TV’s late 80s one-season wonder, Max Headroom on DVD has given sci-fi geeks a nice little lift from the midsummer doldrums (hey-why is everybody looking at me like I’m some kind of a nerd?).

In case you spent the 80s in a coma, or you’re too young to remember, “Max Headroom” was a fictional, computer-generated TV personality who was created via a blend of live-action camera, prosthetics and old-school animation techniques. First appearing in 1985 on Channel 4 in the U.K. as the host for a weekly, MTV-style music video/variety show, the hip, irreverent and oh-so-sardonic Max was indelibly brought to “life” by the comic improvisations of square-jawed Canadian actor Matt Frewer, backed by a bevy of hip writers (it’s like Robin Williams mind-melded with HAL 9000).

The original one-hour pilot that kicked off the British variety series in 1985 provided a back story for the character, and was quite an impressive production. An imaginative mash-up of Brazil, Network and The Parallax View, it is set in a dystopian metropolis some “20 minutes into the future” and concerns an investigative journalist (Frewer) who works for a media conglomerate called Network 23.

He is hot on the trail of his own employers, who have developed a secretive video technology that can deliver a huge cache of subliminal advertising to unwitting TV viewers in a matter of seconds; such a huge amount of information, in fact, that some people have an adverse physical reaction (OK, they explode-don’t worry, not a spoiler). A shadowy conspiracy thriller ensues. While fleeing would-be assassins, he runs smack into a parking gate arm (emblazoned with the warning “Max Headroom”). Soon thereafter, his memory and persona is “saved” and downloaded into a hard drive, which then transmogrifies into the “Max” we all know and love.

I remember first seeing the British pilot here in the states on Cinemax, which kicked off the domestic version of the variety series (only a handful of installments, which aired back in 1986). Unfortunately (most likely due to legal snafus) that original pilot is not included in the DVD set; if you scrounge around secondhand stores and yard sales you may spot the odd VHS copy (I found mine for $3 at a Hollywood Video a couple years ago when they were liquidating VHS inventory). I recommend catching it, if you haven’t.

What is included is the 14 episode season that aired on ABC in 1987, a coveted cult item. The reworked U.S. pilot  follows the same basic story line (although not quite as gritty and technically accomplished as the original) and sets up the character dynamics for the series. Frewer reprises his dual role as investigative TV journalist Edison Carter and his alter-ego, Max. Also retained from the original pilot are the lovely Amanda Pays (as Edison’s controller) and the delightful William Morgan Sheppard as “Blank Reg”, a Mohawk-sporting pirate cable channel entrepreneur. The always dependable Jeffrey Tambor was recruited for the U.S. series to play Carter’s producer.

Something else retained for the U.S. series (and much to its benefit) was a good portion of the original British production and writing team. As I’ve been working my way through the episodes over the past week, it amazes me how subversive the show was for U.S. network TV; especially with its unapologetic leftist, anti-corporate, anti-consumer culture message. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s not surprising that it was yanked after one season. Sad as it is for me to say, you would never see a show like this on American television now that dared to challenge the status quo (the X-Files had its moments, but cloaked them in horror-show silliness, more often than not).

Some of the story lines are quite prescient, dealing with themes like the advent of social networking, cyber-crime, and the merging of the technocracy with the idiocracy (which any casual perusal of YouTube will confirm). Perhaps what resonates most significantly in hindsight is the show’s depiction of news as infotainment and an insidiously corporate-controlled media (dismissed by many as far-fetched paranoid fantasy 23 years ago). Worth ch-ch-ch-checking out.

7 words you can say on YouTube: Winnebago Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)

Many years ago, when I was working at my first radio job (OK, Gerald Ford was in the White House…happy now?) a fellow announcer pulled me aside one day, took me into the production room and revealed a dirty little secret. In those days, when we did our audio production, we would master onto reel-to-reel. Once you had a satisfying take, or had cut and pasted your session into that perfect 30 second commercial (using an actual razor blade and splicing tape), you would then transfer the audio onto a cart (sort of like an 8-track) that the DJs would then be able to play on the air.

Now, we would all use, and re-use, the same “work tapes” on the reel to reel. What my co-worker had been doing for some time was listening back to the previous jock’s raw production session, and saving some of the more amusing outtakes onto a blooper reel. I picked up on this, and over the years I would compile cassette collections of outtakes for the amusement of my friends.

More often than not, what made an outtake a “keeper” was the creative use of profanity and the degree of verbal self-abuse that perfectionists tend to heap upon themselves. And of course, there’s something intrinsically hilarious about listening to a dulcet-toned broadcast professional launching into a tirade that would make a Tourette’s sufferer blush, in perfectly metronomic pentameter. Over the years, I’ve heard (and said) it all myself-which is why I was somewhat ambivalent when I first saw this on YouTube:

It’s all “been there, done that” to me, but that particular collage of blue-streaked verbal self-flagellation by a Mr. Jack Rebney, (aka the “Winnebago Man”) has for some reason captured the imagination of many YouTube fans over the years and spawned its own devoted cult of personality. I think it’s safe to say that most people would take a look, have a chuckle and leave it at that. However, for filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, that was not enough.

For his documentary, Winnebago Man, he wanted to dig deeper and discover the back story. So why would he bother anyway? Would anyone really care? After all, the YouTube clips were taken from VHS copies that had already been circulating amongst “found footage” festival curators and private enthusiasts for years, long before the term “viral video” had entered the lexicon-and certainly prior to YouTube’s existence. For all anyone knew, Rebney was long in his grave. It took the assistance of a private investigator and substantial digging, but Steinbauer discovered his quarry was above ground; indeed way above ground-living the hermit life in an isolated mountain cabin.

Any attempt to summarize further risks spoiling the mildly surprising twists and turns that ensue in this slight yet engaging film. In some ways, it’s more about the filmmaker than his subject; especially when it depicts Steinbauer wrestling with his own motivations for making the documentary in the first place. Is he ultimately exploiting Rebney, who alleges having no idea of his cult celebrity prior to the posting of the outtakes on the internet? Or is Rebney playing him like a violin?

I was reminded of Ross McElwee’s 1996 documentary, Six O’clock News. In that film, the director chose several people at random (most of them beset by personal tragedies) who were featured in TV news stories in an earnest attempt to reveal the living breathing human beings behind the sound bites (while attempting to remain sensitive to their feelings and as unobtrusive to their lives as possible). McElwee encountered the same conundrum as Steinbauer; how do you make a statement about an exploitative and self-aggrandizing media (or web culture) without in essence coming off to be as equally exploitative and self-aggrandizing yourself? Discuss…

Blow-up: The Exploding Girl ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 3, 2010)

Life is what happens to you

When you’re busy making other plans

-John Lennon

 (Engage geek mode) Remember that episode of the original Star Trek series where the Enterprise is taken over by “time-accelerated” aliens, who “convert” Captain Kirk into their reality? Even though he is still standing right next to his crew mates, to their perception he has vanished into thin air; his futile attempts to communicate sounds like the buzzing of insects to them. Inversely, Kirk can actually still “see” them, except they are moving and speaking in slow motion. Sometimes I feel that we have evolved into a society of time-accelerated creatures who are terrified of digesting any deep contemplation of our existence that can’t be wrapped up in a sound bite or tweeted in 140 characters or less.

That general impatience with “stillness” also seems to have become the meme in cinema. Don’t get me wrong; as a movie fan, I can appreciate all styles of film making. Flash cutting and relentless “shaky cam” panning has its place (action thrillers, for example) but on occasion, “life” simply happens before you onscreen while you’re busy waiting for the “movie” to start (to paraphrase a great English poet). And sometimes, that’s enough.

Despite its provocative title, The Exploding Girl is one such film; life simply happens for a while…and eventually, credits roll. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s minimally scripted, no-budget meditation on echo boomers going through growing pains may not be visually showy or sport a hip mumblecore soundtrack, but nails the zeitgeist of young adulthood in much truer fashion than recent films like Juno or (500) Days of Summer.

The story centers on Ivy (Zoe Kazan) who comes home to New York City for summer break. Al (Mark Rendall), her best friend since childhood is also back from college for the summer. To his chagrin, Al’s parents have rented out his room, so he ends up crashing on the couch at Ivy’s family home. Ivy and Al hang out, go to the occasional party, get stoned, get up at the crack of noon-you know, the kinds of things you generally expect college kids to do when they’ve got some down time. Ivy keeps her cell phone glued to her ear, obsessively checking in with her boyfriend, who is spending his school break somewhere upstate (we never actually see him).

Following Zoe to a doctor’s appointment, we learn that she has to take medication for epilepsy. As long as she avoids stressful situations and stays away from alcohol, it appears to be manageable. Ay, there’s the rub. What are some of the mitigating circumstances that could drive a young person headlong into binge drinking? Yes, there are many; especially where affairs of the heart are concerned.

The narrative is not particularly deep or complex, but there is an almost wordless eloquence in the performances; something that happens when actors are given room to breathe (as they are here), letting their actions (and reactions) speak for themselves.

Kazan, a moon-faced pixie with expressive eyes, carries the film nicely. Rendall has a natural ease in front of the camera; although he might have been given  too much free reign in improvising his lines (because like, um, you know, it’s like, um, kinda like hard for me to imagine someone scripting out this type of dialogue, you know?).

I get an  impression from his film that Gray has studied John Cassavetes, particularly evident in some of the guerilla-style exterior shots, where the director doesn’t seem to mind passers-by occasionally hogging the foreground while his actors continue to plow forward with the scene (albeit out of view).

The film is nicely shot (on high-def video) and excellent use is made of the NYC locales. One scene in particular, framed on a rooftop where Ivy and Al are watching the sun set over the city while flocks of pigeons return to their nearby roost, is quite lovely (and possibly is intended as homage to On the Waterfront, which was directed by Kazan’s grandfather, Elia-unless I’m over-analyzing it). Or maybe it’s just simply two people, decelerating time.

Even Hitler had a girlfriend: Vincere ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2010)

Have you ever noticed something about movies set in mental hospitals? More often than not, there’s at least one character who thinks he’s Napoleon; or Jesus, or Elvis (you get the idea). I’ve always wondered if that cliché is based on fact. I couldn’t tell you from any personal observation-because I’ve never been committed (yet).

In 1920s Italy, a mental patient named Ida Dalser had a good one. She would claim repeatedly, for the benefit of any or all within earshot, that she was the wife of that country’s leader, Benito Mussolini (who was in fact married-but to another woman). She also insisted that her son, Benito was Il Duce’s firstborn and therefore his “rightful heir”. “Yes, of course you are,” they would assure her, rolling their eyes as they handed her meds. Funny thing is, she really was the mother of Mussolini’s firstborn son; although to this day there remains no official documentation that the marriage took place.

Actually, she wasn’t really crazy. Crazy in love, perhaps, but she wasn’t nuts. Unfortunately for the doomed Ida, she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1937, in a psychiatric hospital. Her son suffered a similar fate, dying in an asylum in 1942 at age 26. Mussolini’s history with Dalser was kept a state secret during his regime, and remained undisclosed to the general public for a number of years afterwards. Writer-director Marco Bellocchio has taken this relatively obscure historical footnote and elevated it to the level of a classic baroque tragedy in an exquisitely mounted new film called Vincere (Win).

The film picks up their story in pre-WWI Milan, where Mussolini (Felippo Timi) is a struggling self-employed journalist, and Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is running a beauty salon business. Attracted more by his persona rather than by his politics (he was a socialist acolyte at the time), Ida becomes 100% devoted to her lover; at one point she even sells off her business to help keep his self-published newspaper afloat. In a cleverly written scene, he vows to pay her back every lira, melodramatically drawing up an IOU like a world leader composing a proclamation (a portent of the clownish theatricality he would adopt once he did become a world leader).

However, his eventual “payback” to Ida was not exactly reciprocal in sentiment. Following the birth of their son, Mussolini (a textbook narcissist) begins to distance himself from Ida, Much to his convenience, storm clouds gather over Europe and Mussolini runs off to join the army, leaving Ida puzzled and hurt by his emotional (and now, geographical) distancing. When she  visits him at a military hospital, she learns to her chagrin that the woman attending him is not his nurse-but his new wife. Her nightmare is only beginning.

Bellocchio makes an interesting choice. Just as Mussolini disappeared from Ida’s life, leading man Timi virtually disappears for the film’s second half, with archival news reels of the real Mussolini taking his place to update the viewer on his career trajectory, whilst Ida’s life turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

You see the method to the director’s madness, however, when Timi reappears in a memorable scene as Mussolini and Ida’s now college-aged son. He entertains several of his fellow students with a pitch-perfect reenactment of a Mussolini speech that has immediately preceded the scene in one of the aforementioned archival news reels. His pals are impressed by his spot-on impression of Il Duce (although they don’t really believe that he is Mussolini’s son, as he claims to be).

The first half of the film, which examines the couple’s relationship, reminded me at times of Reds or Doctor Zhivago, with its blend of passion, politics, and historical sweep. It is important to note, however, that this is not a film that sets out to detail Mussolini’s rise to power; it is really Ida’s story, which is more intimate.

That being said, as Ida descends further into a living purgatory, getting shuffled from institution to institution, having her identity, freedom, and eventually her son co-opted by “the state” (which is to say, her ex-lover), you could take away an allegorical lesson here about the ugly politics of fascism. Then again, one could also say that “seduction and betrayal” sums up politics in general.

Mad dogs and Englishman: My Dog Tulip ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2010)

Love in the time of collaring: My Dog Tulip

In my 2009 review of The Wrestler, I wrote about how unexpectedly affected I was by Mickey Rourke’s emotional acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, specifically when he paid homage to a dear and devoted friend:

…by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since the first time I saw Old Yeller.

What is it about the very thought of a wet nose, a pair of fluffy ears or a simple game of fetch that can make a grown man weep? Not only to weep; but at times to so sorely grieve-as the late British writer and literary magazine editor J.R. Ackerley once lamented:

I would have immolated myself as a suttee when (my dog) Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.

In fact, Ackerley was so smitten with this “Alsatian bitch” that he was inspired to write two books based on the 15-year long relationship he enjoyed with his beloved pet-a memoir called My Dog Tulip (1956) and a novel, We Think the World of You (1960). The latter book, a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical version of how Queenie came into his life, was adapted into a 1988 film featuring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman (an underrated gem that has yet to see the light of day on DVD). And now, the 1956 memoir has been adapted into a lovely new animated film directed by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.

The Fierlingers utilize a simple, elegant style of animation that triggered memories of the soft, comforting pastel line drawings that adorned the Ludwig Bemelmans “Madeline” books I pored over as a child. That being said, be advised My Dog Tulip is more Feiffer than Bemelmans. Nor can it be labelled as “adorable” in any way, shape or form (Marley & Me, this ain’t).

Indeed, there is much ado about loose poops and “double anal glands”. There’s lots of estrus fixation and doggie sex. But the film also contains something you won’t find in most Hollywood fare, and that’s heart and soul. Again, sans the maudlin sentimentality; as the Ackerley quote which prefaces the film makes so abundantly clear:

“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs”.

And so we are introduced the protagonist, the author himself (wryly voiced by Christopher Plummer), who describes himself as a middle-aged, “confirmed bachelor”. Every night, he leaps up from his desk at the BBC, rushes to the tube station, eager to get to his flat, throw open the door and tumble into a full body hug with Tulip, a rambunctious German Shepherd.

If it wasn’t so obvious that one of these mammals had four legs and a tail, you could just as well assume that their body language telegraphs smitten lovers on a permanent honeymoon. This is, at its heart, a love story. “Tulip offered me what I never found in my sexual life,” explains the narrator, “…constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which is in the nature of dogs to offer.”

Ackerley rescues the young Tulip from well-meaning but neglectful friends. Being of a neurotic breed, she developed “behavioral issues” as the result of confinement to a tiny back yard with little opportunity to run around, explore the world, and do as a dog does.

Trying times lie ahead for both dog and new owner, including a running “feud” vying for Ackerley’s attention between his control-freak sister (the late Lynn Redgrave) and the territorial Tulip. When Tulip comes of age, there is the matter of dealing with her need to breed. This takes up the middle third of the tale; with an exasperated Ackerley displaying the patience of Job as he journeys far and wide to find Tulip a suitable “husband”.

This is one of the more unique films I’ve seen this year, set to a breezy jazz score by John Avarese. It is not so much a “man and his dog” tale, but  a  rumination on the nature of “love” itself, which as we know comes in all colors, sizes, shapes and guises. Is it a need-or a necessity? I suppose that’s a complex question. Then again, perhaps the answer is simple: Sometimes, “all you got is your dog”.

Girls together outrageously: The Runaways ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 27, 2010)

Oh, they would walk the Strip at nights

And dream they saw their name in lights

On Desolation Boulevard

They’ll light the faded light

 –from “The Sixteens” by The Sweet

This may be tough to fathom now, but the idea of an all-female rock band, who actually played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, was still considered a “novelty” in the mid-70s.

Some inroads had been made from the late-1960s up to that time, from artists like Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Suzi Quatro and Heart’s Wilson sisters, as well as some lesser-known female rockers like Lydia Pense (Cold Blood), Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows), Inga Rumpf (Atlantis) and Janita Haan (Babe Ruth).

However, most of the aforementioned were lead singers, with male backup. I do recall a hard-rocking female quartet called Fanny, who put out a couple of decent albums in the early 70s. And then, there were The Shaggs… but that’s a whole other post, dear reader.

In 1975, a music industry hustler and self-proclaimed idol-maker named Kim Fowley, with producer credits on several early 60s Top 40 novelty hits like “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles and “Nut Rocker” by B. Bumble & the Stingers, had an epiphany. If he could assemble an all-female rock band with the ability to capture the appeal of The Beatles by way of the sexy tomboy ethos of glam-punk queen Suzi Quatro, he could conquer the charts and make a bazillion dollars.

So he scoured L.A.s Sunset Strip, searching for teenage girls who met his criteria: good looks, a “fuck you” attitude, and a hunger for fame at any price, who (preferably) owned their own musical equipment…and (most importantly) could be easily manipulated.

Depending on which camp is doing the talking in any tell-all book you may read or documentary you might watch, it was either due to, or in spite of, Fowley’s dubious manipulations that Cherie Currie (lead singer), Joan Jett (guitar and vocals), Sandy West (drums), Lita Ford (lead guitar) and bass player Jackie Fox (and her eventual replacement Vicki Blue) did make quite a name for themselves.

In the course of their 4-year career, they also high-kicked a breach in rock ’n’ roll’s glass ceiling with those platform boots, empowering a generation of young women to plug in and crank it to “11”.  Perfect fodder for a “behind the music” biopic? You bet your shag haircut.

Anyone who harbors fond remembrance for the halcyon days of Bowie, T. Rex and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco might get a little misty-eyed during the opening of Floria Sigismondi’s new film, The Runaways, during which she uncannily captures the look and the vibe of the Sunset Strip youth scene (circa 1975) all set to the strains of Nick Gilder’s “Roxy Roller”. It’s the best cinematic evocation of the glam-rock era that I have seen since Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine.

The film picks up the band’s story when Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon)  introduces Suzi Quatro superfan and aspiring rock star Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). After a series of hit-and-miss audition sessions in the dingy trailer that serves as the band’s rehearsal space, the now-familiar lineup eventually falls into place, including lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton).

Shannon chews major scenery as Fowley, especially as he puts the band through “boot camp”, which includes teaching them how to plow through performing while getting pelted by dog shit and verbal abuse. Cruel? Yes, but have you ever been to an “open mike” night?

The  first third of the film is engaging, capturing the energy and exuberance of rock ’n’ roll and raging hormones;  it bogs down a bit in backstage cliche. Still, there are strong performances that make this film worth seeing. Although she is the same age that Cherie Currie was when she joined the band, Fanning somehow “feels” too young to be cast as this character. Nonetheless, she deserves  credit for giving her bravest performance to date. The biggest surprise is the usually wooden Stewart’s surly and unpredictable performance as Joan Jett; she is  not so much “acting” as she is shape-shifting.

I couldn’t help noticing that there were a couple of glaring omissions in the “where are they now?” crawl that prefaces the end credits. Jett, Currie and West are mentioned, but updates on Lita Ford and Jackie Fox were conspicuously absent. Then, when I saw that Joan Jett was one of the film’s producers, I had an “aha!” moment. It did appear to me, more often than not, that the film was skewing in the direction of becoming “the Joan Jett story”. Then again, one could argue that she has had the most high profile post-Runaways career, with chart success as a solo artist and as co-founder of Blackheart Records.

Combined with Kristen Stewart’s current box-office legs and the release of Jett’s new album right before opening weekend, maybe this was just a shrewd marketing move by the producers. According to the Internet Movie Database, Lita Ford and Jackie Fox did not give their blessing to the production, so it’s also possible that the end credits snub is simply a “fuck you” to her old band mates. I love rock ’n’ roll.

Canola dreams: Little Big Soldier ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2010)

I will confess that I have not gone out of my way to follow action star Jackie Chan’s career. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has made 99 films; after a quick perusal of that impressive list, I’d guesstimate that I have seen approximately, let’s see, somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, around…four. So when I say that Little Big Soldier is the best Jackie Chan flick I’ve ever seen, you can take that with a grain of salt. There is one camp of Chan’s devotees who would tell you that you can’t truly appreciate his true prowess as an entertainer until you’ve seen one of his Hong Kong productions; I think I understand what they are talking about now.

Of course, you could easily apply this caveat to any number of accomplished actors from Europe or Asia who, due to their broken English, give the impression of impaired performances when they star in Hollywood films. For example, let’s say  I was a (what’s a polite term?) casual ‘murcan moviegoer who had never heard of The Last Metro, The Return of Martin Guerre or Jean de Florette, and my  first awareness of Gerard Depardieu was seeing him in 102 Dalmatians. “Loved the puppies, but who was that dopey fat French dude?”

So, while Chan’s latest Hollywood vehicle, The Karate Kid inundates 3700 screens, in the meantime this splendidly acted and handsomely mounted comedy-adventure-fable from director Sheng Ding sits in the wings, awaiting U.S. distribution. The film had its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t make the screening. Luckily, I found a Region 3 DVD version available for rent (the movie opened in the Asian markets back in February of this year).

The story is set in the era just prior to the unification of China under Qin Dynasty rule, a time when many of the country’s states were in a perpetual state of war with one another. Chan is the “Big Soldier”, a Liang survivor who emerges from a mountain of corpses in the opening scene, poking around the remnants of a recent battle. When he happens upon a wounded enemy Wei general (Lee-Hom Wang), he takes him prisoner, hoping to collect a reward.

Big Soldier, a cynical, dirt-poor farmer who was grudgingly conscripted into military service, would just as soon leave the fighting to those who care, and fantasize about what he’s going to grow on the “5 mou” of land that he is going to purchase with this windfall (rice paddy…or canola field?). The young general, an arrogant nobleman, is appalled to be at the mercy of such rabble, but in his debilitated state has no choice but to grin and bear it until he sees a chance to escape.

An arduous, episodic journey ensues, with the “prince and the pauper” dynamic providing most of the comic and dramatic tension. Along the way, the pair encounters interesting characters, most notably a motley crew of cutthroats led by a whip-wielding bandit queen (“They are trustworthy, but truculent,” as one character describes the bandits, in the film’s best line).

However, it’s the animals who threaten to steal the show; my favorite scenes feature a bear, an ox and a pregnant rabbit. There’s also a Shakespearean subplot, concerning royal intrigue in the general’s home court, which leads to an unlikely alliance between the two sworn enemies.

Chan (who wrote the screenplay) reportedly has had this project percolating for nearly 20 years. Despite its relatively simplistic narrative, the film does have an epic feel. The misty mountains, serpentine rivers and lush valleys of China are beautifully photographed; suggesting a mythical sense of time and place.

As per usual, Chan choreographs and directs all of his own fight scenes, executedwith his Chaplinesque blend of gymnastic prowess and deft comic timing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on his oeuvre, but his performance here sports a noticeable upgrade in nuance and character immersion from what I’ve seen of his Hollywood fare (don’t worry, fans-the closing credits fold in the requisite blooper reel). If you have a multi-region player, it is worth seeking out; although this is likely best seen on the big screen.