Tag Archives: 2017 Reviews

SIFF 2017: The Fabulous Allan Carr ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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If you learn one thing about the business we call “show” from Jeffrey Schwarz’s profile of late movie producer Allan Carr, it’s this: For every Grease, there’s a Grease 2. Yes, the same man produced both films. But there was a lot more to this flamboyant showman, who first demonstrated his inherent genius for turning lemons into lemonade when he secured domestic distribution for a no-budget Mexican exploitation flick about the Uruguayan rugby team plane crash survivors who kept alive by gnawing on their less fortunate teammates (you remember Survive!). He produced some huge hits…and probably more misses. But his hits were big enough to sustain a hedonistic lifestyle, which included legendarily over-the-top parties. An entertaining paean to a special type of excess that flourished from the mid-1970s thru the early 1980s.

The 2017 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2017)

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It’s nearly time for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 18th to June 11th). SIFF is showing 400 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities on my list after obsessively combing through the 2017 SIFF catalog (so you don’t have to).

Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries and feature films with a sociopolitical bent. Dolores (USA) is a documentary about influential American labor & civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who has been given short shrift by the history books. Another political doc, The Reagan Show (USA) assembles archival footage to illustrate how the “original” showbiz president sparked the transformation of American politics into the post-modern theater of the absurd we’re watching now on the nightly news. White Sun (Nepal/USA/Qatar) is a drama set against the backdrop of post-civil war Nepal about a Maoist rebel trying to reconnect with his politically antithetical family.

More politics…The Young Karl Marx (France/Germany/Belgium; North American Premiere) is a promising biopic focusing on the early days of Marx and Engels. Nocturama (France/Belgium/Germany) is a drama about “a group of young, multiracial radicals with no stated ideology” who hole up for the night in a mall after committing terrorist attacks in Paris (The Breakfast Club meets Fassbinder’s The Third Generation?). I’m especially interested in seeing This is Our Land (France), which involves an idealistic nurse who is approached by a far-right party to run for mayor. Claiming to be a study on “…how populist ideology can quietly but decisively contaminate ‘good’ people”, the main character is also said to be based on Marine Le Pen. Talk about timely!

I’m always on the lookout for a good music documentary, and SIFF offers an eclectic assortment to pick from this year. Bill Frisell, A Portrait (Australia) takes a look at the elusive, genre-defying Seattle-based “guitarist’s guitarist”, one of those artists who most people have never heard of, yet (paradoxically) has worked with seemingly every recording artist that everybody has heard of (in addition to releasing 35 of his own albums to date). I am intrigued by Chavela (USA), as I admit to being previously unaware of Mexican “rabble-rousing, cigar-smoking lesbian iconoclast” Chavela Vargas.

More music: A Life in Waves (USA) is the first feature-length doc to profile the esoteric yet wildly successful electronica/New Age music pioneer and entrepreneur Suzanne Ciani. Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada) purports to be exactly what its title infers; a celebration of Native Americans (Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and many others) who have left an indelible mark on modern music.

Speaking of indigenous peoples, SIFF is spotlighting several more indigenous-centric films this year. Angry Inuk (Canada) looks to be conversation-starting documentary that gives a voice to the Inuit side of the controversies that have been raging for years regarding subsistence seal hunting (the director herself is an Inuit activist). Searchers (Canada) is “an indigenous take” on John Ford’s revenge tale The Searchers, centering on an Inuk hunter’s pursuit of a band of marauders who have taken his family (Inuk hunters have a very specialized set of skills!). The icy north also figures into the doc Dawson City: Frozen Time (USA), billed as “a haunting chronicle of the transformations in a Yukon Territory Gold Rush town” (I spent 2 weeks there one night on an Alcan trip).

I have a soft spot for road movies, and several have caught my eye. American Folk (USA) is a drama starring two real-life folk singers as “two strangers who take an impromptu, cross-country road trip in the days after 9/11” (I’m getting a Once vibe). I’m eager to see Weirdos (Canada), the latest from my favorite Canadian director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), a “sparkling coming-of-age road journey” set in 1976. The Trip to Spain (UK) reunites director Michael Winterbottom with stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as they bring their patented brand of whining and dining back to the table. Borders (Burkina Faso) is a drama examining a burgeoning friendship between four women from different regions as they cross West Africa by bus.

More African cinema! The action-comedy Bad Black (Uganda) comes straight outta the no-budget “Wakaliwood” studio, and has been a hit with audiences at other festivals. It promises to deliver “ass-kicking commando vengeance unlike anything you have seen before.” Looks like a lot of fun…I’m in! On what I would assume to be a much lighter note, The Wedding Party (Nigeria) offers up “a fresh, female take on Nigerian culture.”

There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bad Day for the Cut (Ireland) pits a “seemingly” mild-mannered Irish farmer against thugs who have killed his ma, and features what is touted as “a career-making lead performance from Nigel O’Neill.” Godspeed (Taiwan) is a crime thriller centering on a down-and-out taxi driver who “accidentally picks up a drug mule” one fateful night (echoes of Michael Mann’s Collateral). Here’s a twist on the hit man genre: Kills on Wheels (Hungary) follows the travails of two handicapped young men who cross paths with “a wheelchair-bound hit man who seems to come straight out of a comic book.” Oy.

Funny stuff: Ears (Italy) is a B&W surrealist tragi-comedy about a man who wakes up with a ringing in his ears and a “cryptic note on his fridge” that jumpstarts what looks to be a pretty weird day. Free and Easy (China) concerns a “soap-peddling shyster” who picks the wrong isolated mountain town to drift into…it’s agog with “idiosyncratic con artists” (I sense irony). Gook (USA) is said to be a mashup of Kevin Smith’s Clerks with Spike Lee’s social commentary sensibilities. It’s a day in the life of two Korean brothers hanging out in their dad’s South Central shoe store-on the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots.

I never miss a chance to get my fantasy/sci-fi/midnight movie fix. Where to start? The Door (China) is a sci-fi mindbender about an auto mechanic who stumbles onto a magic door that leads to an alternate reality (as one does). Also from China: Have a Nice Day, “a grim, animated noir” with “Tarantino-esque dialog” (you had me at “animated noir”). Infinity Baby (USA) is billed as an “absurdist, droll black comedy” concerning “a company who farms out three month-old babies who will never age due to a freak pharmaceutical side effect.” More nightmare fuel: Meatball Machine Kodoku (Japan), is an “utterly insane, blood-and-guts-soaked, action-packed cyber-punk comedy.” OK then.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog. I’ll be plowing through screeners and sharing reviews with you starting next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF website for the full film roster, and info about event screenings and special guests.

Unhappy meal: The Dinner *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie sub-genre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

Oren Moverman’s new drama The Dinner edges closest to the “dinner party gone awry” meme, with a generous dollop of “you only hurt the ones you love” tossed in for giggles.

Actually, there are very few (intentional) giggles in this histrionic disappointment from a director who has done better work and a tragically wasted cast (so much for burying my lede). Set in an upscale restaurant and using a framing device that divides the narratives into chapters (of a sort), delineated by the many courses of the meal, Moverman’s story (adapted from the novel by Herman Koch) centers on a (wait for it) dysfunctional family.

In this corner, we have Richard Gere (in full, insufferably over-confident alpha mode) as a Congressman in the midst of a run for governor, and his lovely wife (Rebecca Hall). And in this corner, we have the Congressman’s agoraphobic, insufferably neurotic academic brother (Steve Coogan) and his lovely wife (Laura Linney).

The brothers have not been on speaking terms for most of their adult lives, but an odious crime committed by their teenage sons (and posted on YouTube by a third party) has necessitated a truce. The boys’ identities are concealed by the fuzzy video, but the couples are struggling with how to best handle it all. As the evening progresses, the familial bloodletting commences.

It’s an intriguing setup, but something went terribly wrong with this film, which I found deadly dull and thoroughly unpleasant to sit through. The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the casting; these are all wonderful actors. That said, Steve Coogan in particular makes some truly awful choices in his performance. It pains me to say this, as he is one of my favorite comedic actors; and perhaps that’s the problem…he is trying too hard. He has successfully tackled dramatic roles in the past, but it may take time to live this one down.

It’s a major letdown from Moverman, who has directed and/or written some exemplary films in the past. In fact, his film The Messenger (my review) made my top 10 of 2009, his film Rampart (my review) made my top 10 films of 2011, and a film he scripted, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (my review) made my top 10 of 2013. Oh well. I guess even some of the best 4-star restaurants serve up the odd plate of overcooked ham. C’est la vie.

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.

Original sin: The Student **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2017)

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In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.

Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by his inexplicably sudden fealty to biblical literalism.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop sermonizing and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.

 

We are all Freddy

By Dennis Hartley

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It is often pointed out that the presidency provides a “bully pulpit” for whomever holds  office at the time. But generally, that is a figure of speech; not every POTUS necessarily abuses that “privilege”.  And yes, “they’ve all done it” at one time or another, regardless of party affiliation. However, I think I can safely say that (in my lifetime, at least) we’ve never seen a bigger bully in the White House than Donald J. Trump. And as we all remember from grade school, bullies are empowered by submission. Which is why this was so cathartic:

Of course, due to certain restrictions imposed upon a network TV host, Stephen couldn’t say what we are all really thinking. Freddy?

What Freddy said.

# # #

UPDATE 5/6/17– Are you fucking kidding me? From Rolling Stone:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission revealed Friday that the agency is considering whether to fine Stephen Colbert over the Late Show host’s controversial joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

On Monday’s Late Show, Colbert quipped that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The joke drew accusations of homophobia, a viral #FireColbert campaign and FCC complaints against Colbert.

In an interview Friday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Philadelphia radio station, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

Pai added, “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be. A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do,” Variety reports.

On Wednesday, Colbert commented on the controversial joke. “At the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president,” Colbert said. “I don’t regret that.”

However, Colbert admitted that, in retrospect, he wishes he chose his words more carefully. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he added.

As for whether the joke was homophobic, Colbert added, “I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me, an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else. But, that.”

Stay tuned for state-controlled media…

Writer’s block: Top 10 films about writers

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Janet Frame and Laura Jones.

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

Written by: Charles Bukowski.

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

Written by: Walter Bernstein.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Bill Manhoff and Buck Henry.

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

Written by: Alan Bennett and John Lahr.

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

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

Wake up and dream: The Red Turtle *** & Your Name ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2017)

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In my 2010 review of a lovely, little-seen film from Mexico called Alamar, I wrote:

To say that “nothing happens” in Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s leisurely paced cinematic tone-poem, set against the backdrop of Mexico’s intoxicating Banco Chinchorro, is to deny that the rhythm of life has a pulse. […]. If you can’t wait for it to end so you can turn your phone back on and check all those “important” messages, I suspect that the film’s message, telegraphed in the sunlit shimmer of a crystalline coral reef, or in the light of love on a father’s face as he watches his son slowly drift off to sleep, is destined to never get through to you anyway.

I had a similar takeaway from The Red Turtle, the latest offering by Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli. Writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously rendered anime is a minimally-scripted paella made from equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Irish selkie/Venus-Aphrodite mythology, and, uh, the Book of Genesis.

Set in an indeterminate time period (educated guess: early-to-mid 19th Century), the tale centers on a shipwrecked (sailor? explorer? pirate? adventurer?) who gets washed up onto the beach of a tiny (Pacific?) island. An exploration of his new environs quickly gives indication that, save the birds, crabs, and baby sea turtles, he is completely, utterly, alone.

Whether or not he is destined to remain by his lonesome in a cruel and unfeeling universe will be revealed to you by the second act; in the interest of avoiding spoilers, all I am prepared to divulge beyond this point of the narrative is that yes – a red turtle is involved.

As I inferred earlier, de Wit’s film has a dearth of narrative and/or character development, but the stunning visuals help make up the deficit (in my experience, Studio Ghibli never fails to deliver the eye candy). Still, some viewers may find it tough going by the time the story enters its more conventional 3rd act, which does lean toward cliché.

The key to enjoying this film (should that be your wont) is to go in with no expectations, and get lost in its beauty; because (if I may again paraphrase from my Alamar review) “…analogous to the complex and delicate eco-system that sustains the reef, there is more going on just beneath the surface than meets the eye.” Because after all, as the great Jacques Cousteau cautioned… “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

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I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies over the years (OK, “decades” may be more apropos), but it’s been quite a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy, Your Name.  Adapted by the director from his own novel, Shinkai’s film has the distinction of being Japan’s most popular and largest-grossing anime (in-country) to not originate from the Studio Ghibli hit factory (the film’s limited U.S. run is being distributed by Funimation Films).

The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities.

Mitsuha, who was raised to be a modest country girl with traditional Japanese values, is consumed by a kind of urban wanderlust; eager to finish high school so she can escape her small town and break out on her own to seek adventure and excitement in Tokyo. Taki, on the other hand, takes his metropolitan lifestyle for granted, and plans on becoming an architect, or perhaps an artist. Mitsuha and Taki are both socially awkward.

You know where this is going, don’t you? There’s something else that Mitsuha and Taki are sharing. They’ve both been having very strange dreams as of late; Taki wakes up one morning, and it seems he’s still dreaming…because his physiology is decidedly female, and he’s living in a rural mountain village where people insist on calling him “Mitsuha” through the course of an eventful day at an unfamiliar high school. “She” goes to bed.

The next time Taki awakens, he’s Taki again (anatomy checks out correctly, much to his relief). However, everyone is giving him funny looks at school. His friends are asking him if he’s OK…and wondering why he was acting so weird the day before.

Once we next get to watch Mitsuha having a similar experience (she “dreams” she is a boy named Taki, lives in Tokyo, and spends an equally unsettling day at an unfamiliar high school), we start to put 2 + 2 together. These two are together…but not altogether. Together apart?

WTF is going on with these two? I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.

So I won’t. Because, a). I can’t afford to lose a reader, and b). It might spoil your fun. Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, metaphysical sci-fi, mystery, coming-of-age tale, humor, and even old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes…I laughed, and I cried). It’s a visual feast as well; the animation is outstanding. It’s not playing at a lot of theaters, so if it pops up in your neck of the woods, do not pass up an opportunity to catch it on the big screen.

The April Fools: Top 10 Mockumentaries

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 1, 2017)

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Since this is April Fool’s Day, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some filmmakers who have made it their mission to yank on our lanyards (does that hurt?). So, in no particular ranking order, here are my selections for the Top 10 Mockumentaries:

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Best in Show-Christopher Guest’s name has become synonymous with the word “mockumentary”, and for good reason. He and his repertory of actors and co-writers have delivered some of the best in the last decade or two (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration), and this gentle poke at dog lovers represents his own “best in show” so far. Guest delivers a network narrative-style study of various participants who are converging (with pooches in tow) to compete at a national dog show. Perhaps it is unfair to single anyone out with such a tight comic ensemble in play, but Fred Willard is a definite highlight as a witless TV commentator (is that redundant?) and Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock chew major scenery as an obnoxious yuppie couple. More standouts: Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Larry Miller and Eugene Levy (who co-scripted).

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The Blair Witch Project-For better or for worse, there is no denying the impact that this cleverly marketed horror flick has had on modern film making. In the event that you spent 1999 in a coma, this is the one where a crew of amateur actors were turned loose in some dark and scary woods, armed with camping gear, video cameras and a plot point or two provided by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who then proceeded to play creepy, “gotcha” mind games with their young troupe. The result was surprisingly effective, because after all, it’s the idea that “something” in the woods is out to get you which brings on the nightmares-not some guy in a rubber monster suit lurching about in front of the camera. There are still some debates raging whether the similar low budget fright, The Last Broadcast (1998) or the more obscure 1980 cult item Cannibal Holocaust deserves the kudos (or the blame) for kick-starting the “found footage” genre.

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Computer Chess-In his off-kilter 2013 “80s retro” mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski achieves verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it appear you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws a bevy of idiosyncratic characters together, shakes the jar, and then steps back to watch what happens. However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things start to get weird…then weirder. The most original sci-fi movie I’ve seen in a while. (My full review),

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Drop Dead Gorgeous– Mocking beauty contests is almost too easy, but as far as guilty pleasures go, Michael Patrick Jann’s faux backstage documentary from 1999 about a Minnesota pageant that goes horribly wrong is a winner. Star Kirsten Dunst plays it straight, and is flanked by a hammy Ellen Barkin (an absolute riot as her trailer-trash mom) and an over-the-top Kirstie Alley as the Stage Mother From Hell. Denise Richards shows a real flair for comedy with a show-stopping performance number dedicated to the “special fella in her life”, a Mr. J. Christ. Also with Alison Janey, Brittany Murphy and Amy Adams. The film is reminiscent of the (more low-key) 1975 pageant spoof Smile.

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F for Fake-“This is a promise,” Orson Welles intones, looking directly into the camera, “For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Ay, but here’s the rub: This playful ‘documentary’ about Elmyr de Hory (“the world’s greatest art forger”) and his biographer Clifford Irving (infamous for his own fakery) runs for 85 minutes. Ever feel like someone’s having you on? That’s the subject of Welles’ 1974 rumination on the meaning of art, and the art of the con. A musical score from the great Michel Legrand is a nice bonus. Not for all tastes; some may find it too scattershot, but there is a method to the madness, and attentive viewers will be rewarded. Even toward the end of a checkered career, with his prowess as a filmmaker arguably on the wane, any completed project by the great Welles demands your attention (at least once!).

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Hard Core Logo-Frequently compared with This is Spinal Tap, this film from iconoclastic Canadian director Bruce McDonald does Reiner’s film one better-it’s got real substance. Now, obviously I love Spinal Tap (otherwise it wouldn’t have been included on this “Top 10” list), but McDonald’s film mixes humor with genuine drama and poignancy, particularly in its portrayal of the complex, mercurial relationship between the two main characters, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) and Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie). Joe and Billy front a “legendary” D.I.Y. punk band called Hard Core Logo, who hit the road for a belated reunion tour. McDonald plays himself, as the director who is documenting what could turn out to be the band’s final hurrah. The film is full of great throwaway lines (“I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m eating corn chips and masturbating. Please leave a message.”). There are also a ton of obscure references in Noel S. Baker’s screenplay that truly dedicated rock music geeks (guilty!) will delight in. This is part of a trilogy (of sorts) by McDonald that includes Roadkill and Highway 61.

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Real Life-Stylistically speaking, this underrated 1979 gem from writer-director Albert Brooks presaged Christopher Guest & company’s successful mockumentary franchise by at least a decade. In fact, the screenplay was co-written by Guest alum Harry Shearer (along with Brooks’ long-time creative collaborator, Monica Mcgowan Johnson). Real Life is a brilliant take-off on the 1973 PBS series, An American Family (which I suppose can now be tagged as the original “reality TV” experiment). Brooks basically plays himself-a neurotic, narcissistic comedian who decides to direct a documentary that will intimately profile the daily life of a “perfect” American family. After vetting several candidates (represented via a montage of hilarious “tests” conducted at a behavioral studies institute), he decides on the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona (headed by the ever-wry Charles Grodin, who was born for this role). The film becomes funnier and funnier as it becomes more about the self-absorbed filmmaker himself (and his tremendous ego) rather than his subjects. Brooks takes a lot of jabs at Hollywood, and at clueless studio execs in particular. If you’ve never seen this one, you’re in for a real treat.

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Take the Money and Run-This is one of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funny films”. It’s also one of the seminal mockumentaries, and riotously funny from start to finish. Woody casts himself as bumbling career criminal Virgil Starkwell, who is the subject of this faux biopic. Narrated with tongue-in-cheek gravitas by veteran voice-over maestro Jackson Beck, the film traces Starkwell’s  trajectory from his early days as a petty criminal (knocking over gumball machines) to his career apex as a “notorious” bank robber. In one of the most singularly hilarious gags Allen has ever conceived, Virgil blows a heist by arguing with a bank manager over his penmanship on a scribbled stickup note that he has handed to a teller, who is very confused by the sentence that appears to read; “I have a gub.” A comedy classic, not to be missed. BTW-if you ever plan to break out of jail by wielding a fake revolver carved from a bar of soap…be sure to check the weather report!

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This is Spinal Tap– Director Rob Reiner also co-wrote this 1984 gem with his three stars-Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who play Spinal Tap founders Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins, respectively. Reiner is “rockumentary” filmmaker Marti Dibergi, who is tagging along with the hard rocking British outfit on a grueling tour of the states. By the time the film’s relatively brief 84 minutes have expired, no one (and I mean, no one) involved in the business of rock’n’roll has been spared the knife-the musicians, roadies, girlfriends, groupies, fans, band managers, rock journalists, concert promoters, record company execs, A & R reps, even record store clerks…you name it, they all get bagged and tagged. Admittedly, a lot of the jokes are pretty “inside”; I’ve noticed that the people who tend to dismiss this film also tend to not be rock music aficionados (or perhaps even more tellingly, have never played in a band!). Nonetheless, a classic of its kind. Always remember-you can’t dust for vomit.

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True Stories-Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps- but for some reason, I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t even explain.

Paging Harry Caul

By Dennis Hartley

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Pre-Twitter: Nixon used to wander the White House in the wee hours, drunk as a skunk, talking to paintings of dead presidents.

At least he kept those 3 am ramblings to himself, God bless ‘im:

Trump really needs a new hobby. Maybe he can learn to play the sax.