Tag Archives: 2014 Reviews

Quick take: A Letter to Momo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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Here’s something you don’t see every day…a family-friendly anime fantasy from Japan that isn’t produced by Studio Ghibli. That being said, Hiroyuki Okiyura’s film plays a bit like a medley of Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits; sort of a “Stars on 45” conundrum (sure sounds like the real thing, yet makes you yearn to hear the original). It’s a simple tale about a teenage girl named Momo who moves to an isolated island village with her widowed mother. Insular and slow to make new friends, Momo spends her time daydreaming and flipping through a box full of strange, antique picture books (“From the Edo era,” her great aunt tells her after offering to let her to peruse the collection at her leisure). Well, I needn’t tell you what happens once you start flipping through strange antique picture books from the Edo era…next thing you know, you’ve got a trio of goblins in your attic. They’re creepy, but they’re kooky. More significantly, they may give Momo closure on an unresolved issue regarding her late father. The hand-drawn animation is lovely, but the story meanders and the mood vacillates too frequently between family melodrama and silly slapstick to sustain any kind of consistent tone. Still, there are some  touching moments; and younger kids might be more forgiving.

Quick take: A Dame to Kill For ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have put the band back together to reprise their “Raymond Chandler and Mikey Spillane go on an ether binge” shtick in this sequel to their 2005 collaboration, Sin City, with mixed results. As before, Miller’s eponymous graphic novel serves as the source material, and Rodriguez’s technical wizardry renders the requisite nightmarish noir milieu in striking chiaroscuro. Hard-boiled and ultra-violent to the point of verging on self-parody, this second omnibus of loosely-connected vignettes nonetheless delivers the goods to anyone who enjoyed the first installment (I stand guilty as charged). Inversely, anyone who couldn’t connect to the previous (and similarly over-the-top) outing will likely remain underwhelmed. A sizable contingent from the previous cast returns, including Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Powers Boothe and Bruce Willis (with a nod and a wink to The Sixth Sense). The hands-down scene-stealer is Eva Green, as the femme fatale to kill for.

Quick take: The Trip to Italy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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There’s a great exchange between returning leads Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to the trio’s 2011 road comedy, The Trip, regarding “the sophomore curse” in cinema. Coogan proclaims that sequels are never as good as the original; instantly regretting his statement when Brydon quickly deadpans “…except, of course, for Godfather II…” and proceeds to rattle off a number of other superior sequels whilst Coogan furiously (and hilariously) attempts to backpedal. You can add this sequel to that list. Using a similar setup, the pair of actor-comedian pals hit the road for another restaurant tour, making a scenic upgrade from England’s Lake District to Italy’s sunny Mediterranean coast. Once again, they play slightly elevated caricatures of themselves. The comic riffing (the main reason to watch) is as brilliant as previous; covering everything from armchair psychoanalysis of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album to dueling Michael Caine impressions and geriatric Roger Moore jabs (“Cubby…did you get my note about the handrails?”). There’s also a more pronounced melancholic element in this outing (middle-aged malaise comes to us all). Also as before, the film was whittled down from a six-episode BBC mini-series.

Ganja with the Wind: Top 5 Rasta Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2014)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace

Too much informers and too much beast

Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

 -from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

It’s been a good week here in Seattle. As of this past Tuesday, Washingtonians officially joined the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs…and ganja. Never thought I’d live to see the day, but there you go. I just hope we don’t blow it. Will we be able to smoke our pipe in peace? There are still a few bugs in the system, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out. At any rate, I thought I would mark the occasion by offering my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

 Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land. Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique and entertaining, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 cult classic can certainly lay claim as The One That Started It All. From its opening scene, when a wide-eyed country boy named Ivan (played by reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s own “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to its blaze of glory finale, the film maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

Rockers– I’ll admit up front that this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend doesn’t really have much of a plot to speak of, but what it may lack in complexity is more than made up for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive in 1978 in his film, which centers on a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat. Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow starving musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting  and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the central focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via a mélange of archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem“. One interesting avenue that Campbell pursues is a suggestion that Tosh was the guiding force behind the original Wailers, and that Marley looked up to him as a mentor in those early days (I think it was more a yin-yang Lennon/McCartney dynamic). It’s a definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

Word, Sound and Power– This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour, but is about the best film anyone is ever likely to make about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene. Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of prolific studio players who were sort of the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew (they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert, to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

And to play us out, here’s Soul Syndicate:

Blu-ray reissue: Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery – Paramount Blu-ray (box set)

Who killed Laura Palmer? Who cares? The key to binge-watching David Lynch’s short-lived early 90s cult TV series about the denizens of a sleepy Northwestern lumber town and their twisted secrets is to unlearn all that you have learned about neatly wrapped story arcs and to just embrace the wonderfully warped weirdness. The real “mystery” is how the creator of avant-garde films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet managed to snag a prime time network TV slot in the first place…and got away with it for two seasons! Paramount’s Blu-ray box set sports vibrant transfers and crisply re-mastered audio tracks. Extras include the “international” cut of the pilot episode, and the “prequel” feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. All  extras from the DVD “gold box” are ported over, with new bonus material.

Blu-ray reissue: The Swimmer ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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The Swimmer – Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray

A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this under appreciated 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the production). In this darkly satirical John Cheever story (adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry), Lancaster’s character embarks upon a Homeric journey…working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in quite some time) fits another piece to the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants. Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray features a restored transfer that showcases David L. Quaid’s superb cinematography, plus an absorbing 2 1/2 hour “making of” doc.

Blu-ray reissue: Sorcerer ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Sorcerer – Warner Bros. Blu-ray

The time is ripe for a re-appraisal of William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and cold-shouldered by critics at the time. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which likely led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars. At any rate, it’s an expertly directed, terrifically acted update of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic 1953 nail-biter, The Wages of Fear (I say “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a “letter from the director” included with the new disc). Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack. No extras on Warner’s Blu-ray, but to finally see a restored, director-supervised transfer is a treat.

Blu-ray reissue: Prime Cut ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Prime Cut – Explosive Media Blu-ray

This offbeat 1972 “heartland noir” from director Michael Ritchie features one of my favorite Lee Marvin performances. He’s a cleaner for an Irish mob out of Chicago who is sent to collect an overdue payment from a venal, sociopathic livestock rancher (Gene Hackman) with the unlikely moniker of “Mary Ann”. In addition to overseeing his meat packing plant (where the odd debt collector ends up as sausage filler), Mary Ann maintains a (literal) stable of naked, heavily sedated young women for auction. He protects his spread with a small army of disturbingly uber-Aryan young men who look like they were cloned in a secret Nazi lab. It gets even weirder, yet the film has an oddly endearing quality; perhaps due to its blend of pulpy thrills, dark comedy and ironic detachment. It’s fun watching Hackman and Marvin go mano a mano; and seeing Sissy Spacek in her film debut. Explosive Media skimps on extras, but boasts a sharp transfer.

Blu-ray reissue: Herzog: The Collection ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Herzog: the Collection – Shout! Factory Blu-ray (box set)

(*sigh*) It turns out everything that I thought I knew about iconoclastic German director Werner Herzog’s oeuvre couldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece (hangs head in shame, while sheepishly offering to rip up critic’s license for the reader’s amusement). I came to this realization after perusing the list of films included in Shout! Factory’s handsomely designed new Blu-ray box set. Out of the 16 films (spanning the years 1970 to 1999), I had only seen 5. However, in my defense, this is the first time any of these films have been available on Blu-ray, and a good number of them (particularly from the 1970s) have been difficult to track down in any format since the advent of home video. As I have been plowing through this eclectic collection, I can confirm one constant that I had already gleaned about Herzog…from his earliest days as a filmmaker and continuing to this day, he goes to places where most of us fear to tread (literally and figuratively) and hones his lens in on the one thing in the room that makes us want to look away (how does he always know?!) With beautifully restored prints, new audio commentaries, and many more extras, this box set is a film lover’s dream.