Tag Archives: 2010 Reviews

SIFF 2010: The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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Sometimes, it’s kind of fun to just throw a dart at the SIFF schedule and see where it lands. I had no clue as to what to expect when the lights went down for the screening of Leanne Pooley’s documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. All I knew was that it was a film about yodeling lesbian twins.  I didn’t even know if it was for real; it sounded like a mockumentary, to be honest. To my surprise, by the time the lights came up, my faith in humanity had almost returned.

Because you see, it’s hard to be depressed after spending 90 minutes with the film’s subjects. Jools and Linda Topp have to be two of the most charming, down-to-earth, warm-hearted and preternaturally gifted entertainers you’d ever want to meet in a screen profile. Hugely popular in their native New Zealand, the 52-year old Topps have been bringing audiences their unique blend of music and comedy (and yodeling) since the 1980s.

What most impressed me was their dedication to progressive activism (Billy Bragg describes them as “an anarchist variety act”). Over the years, they have campaigned for LGBT rights, participated in protests in support of civil rights for New Zealand’s indigenous Maoris, and worked in support of the anti-nuke movement (to name a few). What’s refreshing about their political work is that there is no grandstanding; you don’t doubt their sincerity for a second (“what you see is what you get” says one of their fans). Pooley’s film is as upbeat and straightforward as her subjects; imparting  the  joy of creating something that is at once entertaining and inspiring

SIFF 2010: Queen of the Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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

It turns out that there have been voices in the wilderness over the years; although they have been largely ignored. Albert Einstein once said: “If bees die, man will only have four years of life left.”  As early as 1923, Austrian philosopher-scientist-social thinker and bio-dynamic agriculturalist icon Rudolph Steiner warned that within 100 years, without careful cultivation and continued awareness of the delicate symbiotic relationship we share with them, the honeybees would begin to dissipate (silly Rudy).

Siegel documents how, in the 80-odd year interim between Steiner’s dire prediction and what is happening now, we have plowed ahead in our typical clueless fashion, taking and taking and not giving enough back. Siegel rounds up the usual suspects, like mite infestations, pesticides, and the use of domesticated colonies in mechanized industrial pollination (especially in regards to mono-cropping, for which the bees are sometimes fortified with corn syrup, of all things).

The film is not all gloom and doom.  In countries where toxic pesticides are currently banned, Colony Collapse Syndrome has been virtually non-existent (surprise surprise).  And there are  uplifting interludes throughout profiling individuals who offer a philosophical/spiritual perspective on the human-bee connection.

And perhaps most importantly, we meet people proactively working on solutions; biodynamic beekeepers, organic farmers, and some urban beekeepers in the heart of the Bronx who are risking actual imprisonment for maintaining their rooftop hives (obviously, there are some ridiculous laws that are screaming to be stricken from the books). The film is beautifully photographed, well-paced and features a lovely score by Jami Sieber. I’ll tell you one thing- after watching this you’ll never take that jar of honey for granted again.

SIFF 2010: Nowhere Boy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood, which is the toppermost of the poppermost on my SIFF list so far this year. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

SIFF 2010: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a frenetic and cacophonous biopic that attempts to paint a portrait of the late proto-punk rocker Ian Dury…with rather broad strokes. Andy Serkis does do an amazing job at convincingly affecting the polio-twisted physicality and equally twisted persona of the man who gave us classics like “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”, “Spasticus Autisicus” and the eponymous anthem, which has also become an oft-repeated catchphrase.

Despite some rousing music numbers and a vastly entertaining Serkis (playing his gruff-voiced Dury like a cross between Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret and Robert Newton’s Long John Silver in Treasure Island), director Mat Whitecross (who seems heavily influenced  by Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz) and screenwriter Paul Viraugh never quite get a handle (or a rhythm stick?) on what it was that made Dury tick.

SIFF 2010: The Extra Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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SIFF’s opening night film is an uneven, yet at times drolly amusing dramedy from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The directors co-scripted with Jonathan Ames (adapting from his source novel). Once again, Berman and Pulcini plunge into a writer’s mind-well, two N.Y.C. writers-a young aspiring novelist (Paul Dano) obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a playwright (Kevin Kline), who rents him a room. Both characters’ eccentricities pile up faster than you can say “cross-dressers and gigolos”. The film is a quirky, oddball mash-up of The Producers and Midnight Cowboy. John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes also join the fray. Kline’s wondrously insane performance is the main attraction, and Dano officially confirms what I have suspected for some time now: he is the Bud Cort of his generation.

SIFF 2010: Son of Babylon ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Son of Babylon  is a tremendously moving “road movie” from Iraq, Set in 2003, weeks after the fall of Saddam, it follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they travel south to Nasiriyah, the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert (via foot, hitched rides, and alarmingly overstuffed buses) a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Sometimes with levity; “I’m going to go call Sadaam,” a man says to Ahmed with a wink as he excuses himself to go take a leak.  At other times, with understated eloquence; when one of their travel companions questions the futility of the pair’s fruitless search through the morass of mass grave sites spanning Saddam’s killing fields, the grandmother says “Losing our sons is like losing our souls.” The man’s mute reaction speaks volumes.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji  and screenwriter Jennifer Norridge have created something that has been conspicuously absent in the growing list of Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who  get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. With  few exceptions (David O. Russell’s Three Kings comes to mind), most of the Western-produced films about the Iraqi conflicts have generally portrayed the Iraqis as either faceless heavies, or at best, “local color”.

While the film makers do allude to some of the politics involved,  the narrative is constructed in such a way that, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bombs or Saddam’s own pogroms becomes moot. This is a universal story about human beings, rendered in a  direct, neorealist style that recalls Vitorrio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

If the film has a message, it is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, who is also searching for a missing loved one at a mass gravesite sets her own suffering aside for a moment to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder and says “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish, but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

There’s one thing I can say for certain regarding this emotionally shattering film (aside that it should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else on the planet who wields the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 best picture winners…evah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2010)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday (can’t avoid the hype). As an alleged “movie critic”, I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen 5 out of the 10 nominees for 2009’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been a number of years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my sense of film aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards over the years. And I don’t think my personal sense of film aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance as to why you may notice that no “Best Picture” winners from the last two decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 81 Academy Awards. Perhaps it is just my long-winded way of saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you kids stay off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) Capitalism: a love story. 72 years on, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play resonates anew in the light of our current woes. A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity  abounds, fueled by the contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non conformist. There’s lots of great slapstick bits, and like every screwball comedy worth its salt, there’s a scene where the entire cast ends up in a holding cell and has to explain themselves before a hapless judge.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still works in social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for some of the pervading themes in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also received the Best Director Oscar.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953)-Even though James Jones’ coarse and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor, fucking and fighting with wild abandon in the days leading up to the surprise attack was heavily sanitized for the screen adaptation, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still pretty risqué and heady adult fare for its time. Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons). And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (in his legendary “comeback” role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed (who quite literally put her wholesome image to bed by playing a prostitute). A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962)-Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. Or how commanding 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role. O’Toole gives an appropriately larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a charismatic guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their intelligent screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a surprising sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars). Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without giving praise to Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967)-“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic social commentary, Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his role; you feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn (I would imagine President Obama knows that feeling as of late).

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who picked up “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality, Poitier was the star (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a quintessential “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the appropriately bluesy soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the theme song.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969)-One of the very few times the Academy has given a nod to the dark side (add Hamlet, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, and No Country for Old Men to that list, and you can literally count it on one hand). John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. There is a memorable party scene featuring cameos from a number of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” alumnus. The location filming serves as an historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square. Schlesinger picked up a statuette for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. And, taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977)-As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he “found his voice” as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the cinematic romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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Gandhi (Best Picture of 1982)-I can still remember the first time I saw this film. It was at the single-screen Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, which at the time was the only venue in the city equipped to showcase 70mm prints in their full glory. In its original theatrical presentation, the film had an intermission, which occurred following the scene that reenacts the unthinkably horrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the lights came up in the packed house, you could hear a pin drop-but for the sound of a woman quietly sobbing in the seat right in back of me. That’s all it took for me-I began to lose it, and it quickly spread around the auditorium. I had never before (or since) experienced anything like that at a screening. And therein, dear reader lays the power of truly great film making.