Tag Archives: Blu-ray/DVD reissues

DVD Reissue: $ (Dollars) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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$ (“Dollars”) – Sony Pictures DVD

This lesser-known Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn vehicle (from 1971) has been languishing in the vaults for a quite a while, and is due for rediscovery. Beatty is a bank security expert who uses inside “pillow talk” intel provided by his hooker girlfriend (Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch three safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank that she has confirmed as belonging to people associated with criminal enterprises (what are they going to do-go to the police for help?). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.

What sets this film apart from standard heist capers is its unique chase sequence, which seems to run through most of Germany and takes up a whopping 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great score from Quincy Jones, too. This DVD is part of a new series of reissues from Sony Pictures, which they have curiously labeled “Martini Movies”.

DVD Reissue: Touch of Evil ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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Touch of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition) – Universal DVD (2-discs)

Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that famous opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and certainly stands as one the most offbeat  heavies in all of film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich, who deadpans some zingers (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time.

Fans of the film have had to make do with an improperly matted and cropped DVD transfer-until now. Not only have those screen ratio issues been corrected, but we are also given  a choice of viewing 3 different cuts in this new edition: the restored and re-edited 1998 version (re-cut to the specifications that Welles had requested in a 58-page memo to the studio that ultimately fell on deaf ears), the original theatrical version, and the preview version (which has a commentary track with Heston and Leigh). With extras galore.

Maladies of Spain: The Limits of Control ***1/2 & The Hit ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2009)

The LBJ look: Bill Murray in The Limits of Control.

Any one who has followed director Jim Jarmusch career will tell you there are certain things you can always expect in his films. Or perhaps it’s more about the things not to expect. Like car chases. Special effects. Flash-cut editing. Snappy dialog. A pulse-pounding music soundtrack. Narrative structure. Pacing.

Not that there is anything wrong with utilizing any or all of the above in order to entertain an audience, but if those are the kinds of things you primarily look for when you go to the movies, it would behoove you to steer clear of anything on the marquee labeled as “a film by Jim Jarmusch”.  Rest assured that you will find none of the above and even less in his latest offering, The Limits of Control.

Jarmusch has decided to take another stab at the “existential hit man” genre (which he first explored in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai).  Here, he concocts something best described as The Day of the Jackal meets Black Orpheus. Isaach De Bankole is a killer-for-hire. Referred to in the credits simply as Lone Man,  this is an assassin who at first glance mostly appears to kill time.

After receiving his cryptic assignment, he sets off via train, plane and automobile through the Spanish countryside, with a stop in Madrid. Along the way, the taciturn Lone Man meets up with an assortment of oddballs, with whom he trades matchboxes (don’t ask).

Each of these exchanges is really a setup for a cameo-length monologue about Art, Love, Life, the Universe and Everything by guest stars like John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal (whose characters sport archetypal names like Guitar, Blonde and Mexican). As each contact pontificates on a pet topic, De Bankole sits impassively, sipping a double espresso, which he always demands to be served in two cups (the film’s running joke).

The coffee quirk is the least of Lone Man’s OCD-type eccentricities. When he is on a “job”, he suffers absolutely no distractions…even sleep. He doesn’t seem to require much sustenance either, aside from those double espressos. He can’t even be bothered to take up an offer for a little recreational sex with the alluring  Paz De La Huerta (what is he, nuts?!) who, true to her character’s name (Nude) spends all her screen time wearing naught but a pair of glasses.

The Big Mystery, of course, is Who’s Gonna Die, and Why-but we are not let in on that little secret until the end . OK, you’re thinking at this point, we don’t know who he is chasing, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone chasing him, so where’s the dramatic tension?

Well, dramatic tension or traditional narrative devices have never been a driving force in any of Jarmusch’s films (as I pre-qualified at the outset). It’s always about the characters, and Jarmusch’s wry, deadpan observance regarding the human comedy. In Jarmusch’s universe, the story doesn’t happen to the people, the people happen upon the story; and depending on how receptive you are to that concept on that particular day, you’re either going to hail it as a work of genius or dismiss it as an interminable, pointless snooze fest.

It so happened I was in a receptive mood that day, and I found a lot to like about The Limits of Control. In purely cinematic terms, it’s one of his best films to date. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the most out of the inherently photogenic Spanish locales and deftly instills  the film with an “acid noir” feel. Jarmusch has put together a greatsoundtrack, from flamenco, ambient, psychedelic, to jazz and classical. I think I’ve even figured out what this film is “about”. Or maybe Jarmusch is just fucking with me. For the eleventh time.

I love the 80s: Terrence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit.

As the credits were rolling for The Limits of Control, something  nagged at me. It strongly reminded of another film  but I couldn’t quite place it. As I was racking my brain, I thought “Now, there can’t be that many other existential hit man movies, filmed in Spain, which also feature….John Hurt.  That’s it! It was so obvious that I wasn’t able to see it right away. One of my favorite Brit-noirs , The Hit, is an existential hit man movie, filmed in Spain and features John Hurt.

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback of sorts for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a Capella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” (which has never sounded so menacing, especially when it is sung by a group of Cockney thugs who look like they were on loan from the cast of The Long Good Friday). The oddly serene Willie doesn’t appear fazed.

Flash-forward a number of years, and we learn that Willie has relocated to Spain, where he leads a somewhat comfortable existence (although his ever-present bodyguard would seem to be an indicator that he probably still sleeps with one eye open). When the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”, and Willie is abducted by freelancing locals and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his hotheaded young “apprentice” (Tim Roth), he accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm (much to the chagrin of his captors).

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in ever-escalating mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic gets even more interesting when circumstances lead to taking on an additional hostage (Laura del Sol). Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation. Roth (in his film debut) is edgy, explosive and sometimes quite funny.

While this is essentially a grim drama, and exactly not a “funny ha-ha” romp; there are black comedy underpinnings that become more apparent upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia (Eric Clapton plays the opening). Well worth rediscovering, especially since it has (finally!) been given the deluxe Criterion Collection remastering treatment (the previously available DVD was a badly transferred pan and scan).

ADD theater: Funky Forest

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 29, 2008)

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One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is when we see its separate forms jumbled together.

-Jean Luc Goddard

 A mixed-up mix

Mix up your journey to the next journey

Mixers rock

-DJ Takefumi, from the film Funky Forest: The First Contact

 So, do you think you’ve seen it all? I would venture to say that you haven’t- until you’ve sat through a screening of Funky Forest: The First Contact, originally released in 2005 as Naisu no mori in Japan but now available for the first time on Region 1 DVD.

The film is a collaborative effort by three Japanese directors, most notably Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea). Ishii, along with Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, has concocted a heady “mixed-up-mix”, indeed. There is really no logical way to describe this blend of dancing, slapstick, surrealism, sci-fi, animation, absurdist humor, and experimental film making, married to a hip soundtrack of jazz, dub and house music without sounding like I’m high (perhaps I already sound that way in a lot of my posts…nest ce pas?), but I will do my best.

There is no real central “story” in the traditional sense; the film is more or less a network narrative, featuring recurring characters a la late night TV sketch comedy. Some of these disparate stories and characters do eventually intersect (although in somewhat obtuse fashion). The film is a throwback in some ways to comedy anthologies from the 70s like The Groove Tube, Tunnel Vision and The Kentucky Fried Movie; although be forewarned that the referential comic sensibilities are very Japanese. If a Western replica of this project were produced, it would require collaboration between Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg (and a script from Charlie Kaufman).

Although there are no “stars” of the film, there are quite a few memorable vignettes featuring three oddball siblings, introduced as “The Unpopular With Women Brothers”. The barbed yet affectionate bickering between the hopelessly geeky Katsuichi, the tone-deaf, guitar strumming Masuru (aka “Guitar Brother”) and the pre-pubescent Masao, as they struggle with dissecting the mystery of how to get “chicks” to dig them is reminiscent of the dynamic between the uncle and the two brothers in Napoleon Dynamite and often quite funny. It is never explained why the obese, Snickers-addicted Masao happens to be a Caucasian; but then, the whole concept wouldn’t be so absurdly funny, would it?

The vignettes centering on the relationship between Notti and Takefumi, a platonic couple, come closest to conventional narrative structure. Then there are the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights-influenced trio of giggly “Babbling Hot Springs Vixens”, who tell each other tall stories in three segments entitled “Alien Piko Rico”, “The Big Ginko Tree” and my personal favorite, “Buck Naked and the Panda”.

You will need to clear some time-Funky Forest runs 2½ hours long, in all its challenging, non-linear glory. So is it worth your time? Well, it probably depends on your answer to this age-old question: Does a movie necessarily have to be “about” something to be enjoyable? At one point in the film, Takefumi goes into a soliloquy:

The turntable is the cosmos

A universe in each album

A journey, an adventure

A journey, a true adventure

Journey, adventure

Journey

Needles rock. Needles rock.

Music mixer and the mix

There is another clue on the film’s intermission card, which reads: “End of Side A”. This may be the key to unlocking the “meaning” of this film, which is, there is no meaning. Perhaps life, like the the movie, is best represented by a series of random needle drops. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey (OK, now I think I am stoned.) With a spirit of winking goofiness running throughout all of this weirdness, perhaps the filmmakers are paraphrasing something Mork from Ork once offered about retaining “a bit of mondo bozo”. God knows, it’s helped me get through 52 years on this silly planet.

My obsession with Ida Lupino: Moontide *** & Road House ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2008)

Hello, Dali.

This week, I wanted to spotlight a pair of lesser-known, underappreciated and previously hard-to-find films noirs from the 1940s that have finally seen the light of day on DVD. Moontide and Road House are two of the latest reissues in the ongoing Fox Film Noir Series, and both happen to feature the woman of my darkest dreams, Ida Lupino.

The British-born Lupino (who died in 1995 at age 81) was a staple of the classic American noir cycle from the early 40s through the late 50s. Although it wasn’t the only movie genre she worked in during her long career, it’s the one she was born to inhabit. She had a sexy, slinky, waif-like appearance that was intriguingly contrapuntal to her husky voice and tough-as-nails countenance.

Whether portraying a victim of fate or a femme fatale, Lupino imbued all of her characters with an authentic, “lived-in” quality that gave her a compelling screen presence. It’s also worth noting her fine work as a writer, director and producer, in an era of film making when few women wore those hats.

Back in 1941, director Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Charley’s Aunt, A Night in Casablanca) faced the unenviable task of stepping in to rescue a 20th Century Fox film project called Moontide, which had been abandoned by the great Fritz Lang not too long after shooting had begun. As one of the pioneering German expressionists, Lang was a key developer of the visual style that eventually morphed into a defining noir “look” (some of his pre-1940s classics like M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are generally considered seminal proto-noirs).

Moontide was also to be the American debut for Frenchman Jean Gabin, already a major star in Europe (Pepe le Moko, La Grande Illusion, La Bete humaine). Needless to say, the pressure was on for Mayo to deliver. And “deliver” he did, with this moody and highly stylistic sleeper, ripe for rediscovery.

Gabin stars as Bobo, an itinerate odd-jobber (the type of character Steve Martin might call a “ramblin’ guy”) who blows into a coastal California fishing community with a parasitic sidekick named Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) in tow. Adhering to time-honored longshoreman tradition, Bobo and Tiny make a wharf side pub crawl the first order of business when they hit port. It is quickly established that the handsome, likable and free-spirited Bobo loves to party, as we watch him go merrily careening into an all-night boning and grogging fest.

The next morning, Bobo appears to be suffering from a classic blackout, not quite sure why or how he ended up sacked out on an unfamiliar barge, wearing a hat that belongs to a man who has met a mysterious demise sometime during the previous evening.

Taking a stroll along the beach in an attempt to clear his head, he happens upon a distraught young woman named Anna (Lupino) who is attempting to drown herself in the surf. Anyone who has screened a noir or two knows what’s coming next. Before we know it, Bobo and Anna are playing house in a cozy love shack (well, bait shop, technically). Of course, there is still that certain unresolved matter of Did He Or Didn’t He, which provides the requisite dramatic tension for the rest of the narrative.

John O’Hara’s screenplay (adapted from Willard Robertson’s novel) borders on trite at times and could have done more damage to the film’s rep, if it had not been for Gabin and Lupino’s formidable charisma, as well as the beautifully atmospheric chiaroscuro photography (by Charles G. Clarke and Lucien Ballard) and assured direction from Mayo.

There are several brilliant directorial flourishes; the montage depicting Bobo’s fateful night of revelry is a particular standout. The surreal touches in that sequence were “inspired” by some original sketches submitted on spec by Salvatore Dali, who was slated to contribute art direction, but ended up dropping out for one reason or another.

Great supporting performances abound, particularly from a nearly unrecognizable Claude Rains as a paternal waterfront philosopher who could have easily strolled off the pages of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Moontide would make an interesting double bill with Clash by Night, another character-driven “cannery noir” set in a California fishing town milieu.

And now we come to a particularly delicious sleaze-noir from 1948 called Road House (not to be confused with the trashy 1989 Patrick Swayze mullet fest that shares the same title). This was the fourth and final genre pic from director Jean Nugulesco, who had previously helmed The Mask of Dimitrios, Nobody Lives Forever and Johnny Belinda.

Noir icon Richard Widmark stars as the mercurial Jefty Robbins, who owns a road house called (wait for it…) “Jefty’s”. He has hired his longtime pal Pete Morgan (noir beefcake Cornel Wilde) to help with day-to-day management. The fussy, protective Pete feels that his main function is to be the voice of reason and steer the frequently impulsive Jefty away from making potentially reckless business decisions.

When Pete is dispatched to the train station to pick up Jefty’s “new equipment” Lily Stevens (Lupino), a hardened chanteuse who starts cracking wise from the moment they meet, he becomes convinced that this is one of Jefty’s potentially reckless business decisions. The tough, self-assured Lily laughs off his attempt to offer up the advance money “for her trouble” and then steer her onto the next train heading back to Chicago. Now, you and I know that these two are obviously destined to rip each other’s clothes off at some point; the fun is in getting there.

Although the setup may give the impression that this is going to be a standard romantic triangle melodrama, the film segues into noir territory from the moment that the Widmark Stare first appears. For those not familiar with the Widmark Stare, it goes thusly:

Suffice it to say-when you see the Widmark Stare, it is very likely that trouble lies ahead. As his character becomes more and more unhinged, Widmark eventually employs all his “greatest hits” (including, of course, The Demented Cackle). His performance builds to an operatic crescendo of psychopathic batshit craziness in the film’s final act that plays like a precursor to Ben Kingsley’s raging, sexual jealously-fueled meltdown in Sexy Beast.

Widmark and Lupino are both in top form here. Wilde is overshadowed a bit, but then again his “boy toy” role isn’t as showy as the others. Celeste Holm is wonderfully droll as one of Jefty’s long-suffering employees. Lupino insisted on doing her own singing in the film; while she was not a technically accomplished crooner, she actually wasn’t half bad in a husky-voiced “song stylist” vein (she really tears it up on “One For My Baby”).

Both films sport excellent DVD transfers and insightful commentary from noir experts.

Dancing in the dark: The Killing of John Lennon *** & Control ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 16, 2008)

This week, I’m taking a look at two recent films of note that you may have missed which are now available on DVD. Both  fit into a genre I like to refer to as “Rock ‘n’ Noir”; that twilight confluence of the recording studio and the dark alley, if you will.

There is a particularly creepy and chilling moment of “art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating life” in writer-director Andrew Piddington’s film, The Killing of John Lennon, where the actor portraying the ex-Beatles’ stalker-murderer deadpans in voice-over:

 “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.”

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt. Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

Piddington based his screenplay on transcripts of Chapman’s statements and recollections, and focuses on the killer’s complete break with reality, which ultimately culminated in John Lennon’s tragic murder in December of 1980. The story picks up in the fall of that year, when Chapman (Jonas Ball) was living in Hawaii and reaching the end of his emotional rope. Fed up with a life of chronic underachievement and a lack of any sense of purpose, he lashes out at his hapless wife (Mie Omori) and domineering mother (Krisha Fairchild). He is obsessed with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; he re-reads the book over and over, until in his own deluded mind, he has transmogrified into the story’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, on a mission to seek out and denounce all the “phonies” of the world.

He quits his job and takes the first of two fateful solo trips to New York City, where he finally gleans his “purpose”-to kill his musical idol, John Lennon, for being such a “phony”. His twisted mission is postponed after he attends a screening of Ordinary People, which somehow snaps him back to his senses. Sadly, his creeping derangement did not stay dormant, and we all know what transpired.

Ball is quite convincing in the role; so convincing that it will be interesting to see if he can avoid being typecast as a brooding psychopath in future projects (Steve Railsback remains synonymous with Charles Manson to me, several decades after his creepy channeling in Helter Skelter.) To their credit, the director and his lead actor do not glorify Chapman or his deeds; nor on do they portray him as a boogie man. He’s an everyday Walter Mitty… gone sideways and armed with a .38. The film is a fairly straightforward docu-drama; what makes it compelling is Ball’s edgy unpredictability and the moody, atmospheric cinematography by Roger Eaton.

I can see how boomers like myself, who have the most sentimental attachment to the Beatles, would have an inherent revulsion for reliving this horrible milestone; I suspect that to younger viewers, the film’s subject matter would seem less morbid and of more objective interest. Clearly, there is an audience for this subject, because there is yet another film out about Chapman called Chapter 27, starring a porked-out Jared Leto (I have not seen it; it played the festival circuit last year and is due on DVD September 30).

So what is the point in lolling about in a madman’s head for nearly two hours? And isn’t giving attention to this loser who was a “nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on earth” (the movie’s tag line) just rubbing salt in the wounds of Beatle fans everywhere? Well, perhaps. Then again, it is part of history, part of life. Movies are art, true art reflects life, and life is not always a Disney movie, is it?

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know
Just for one moment –
hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

 -from” Twenty-Four Hours” by Joy Division

1980 was a bizarre yet pivotal year for music. The first surge of punk had come and gone and was being homogenized by the marketing boys into a genre tagged as New Wave. The remnants of disco and funk had finally loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, but had not quite yet fully acquiesced to the still burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the dance music du jour. What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet amazingly successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single from the album, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for the year, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). MTV was still a year away from killing the radio stars.

The time was ripe for something new; perhaps a whole new paradigm. For my money, there were several key albums released that year that definitely lurched in that direction. They included Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, Sandinista by the Clash, Black Sea by XTC, Sound Affects by The Jam…and Closer by Joy Division.

Joy Division was a quartet from north of England way who formed in the late 70s. They mixed a punk ethos with a catchy but somber pop sensibility that echoed the stark industrial landscape of their Greater Manchester environs. Along with local contemporaries like The Fall and The Smiths, they helped seed what would eventually be referred to as the “Manchester scene” (brilliantly dramatized in the outstanding 2002 film, 24-Hour Party People).

I remember being  blown away the first time I heard Closer;  I was struck by the haunted baritone of lead singer Ian Curtis, who had a Jim Morrison-like way of chanting his dark, cryptic lyrics in such a manner that they really got under your skin. Like Morrison, Curtis’ touchstones as a songwriter seemed to draw more impetus from the likes of Conrad and Blake than Leiber and Stoller. It was more of an invocation of the soul, as opposed to merely “singing a song”.

Tragically, by the time that album had been released, and its memorable single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was playing on the radio, Curtis had passed away, at the age of 23. Distraught over his deteriorating marriage and chronic health problems, he hung himself in his flat in May of 1980. There is a general consensus that side effects from the myriad of anti-seizure medications he was taking for epilepsy had contributed to elevating his depression and feelings of despair. The surviving band members regrouped, dusted themselves off and mutated into a more radio-friendly synth-pop outfit called New Order (and the rest, as they say, is history).

I know that doesn’t sound like the makings of a feel good summer movie, but I can’t heap enough praise upon Control, first-time director Anton Corbijn’s highly impressionistic dramatization of Curtis’ short-lived music career. Based on the book Touching from a Distance, a memoir by Curtis’ widow Deborah, the film (shot in stark black and white) eschews the usual biopic formula and instead aspires to setting a certain atmosphere and mood. Corbijn, known previously as a still photographer, actually had a brief professional relationship with Joy Division. He snapped a series of early publicity photos for the band, which  become iconic to fans.

The film is fueled by a mesmerizing performance from the relatively unknown Sam Reilly , who actually had a bit part in the aforementioned 24-Hour Party People playing Mark. E. Smith, lead singer of The Fal). He avoids merely “doing an impression” of Ian Curtis, opting instead for a very naturalistic, believable take on a gifted but tortured soul. The fact that Reilly is also a musician certainly doesn’t hurt either (all four of the actors portraying Joy Division actually did their own “live” singing and playing).

He holds his own against the more seasoned Samantha Morton, who plays his long-suffering wife. Morton is one of the finest and most fearless actresses of her generation; she keeps getting better.  Her character  reminded me of the type of role Rita Tushingham used to tackle head on in classic British “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s.

In fact, the intense realism that Reilly and Morton instill into their portrayals of a struggling young British working class couple, along with the black and white photography and gritty location filming strongly recalls classics of the aforementioned genre, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger and The Leather Boys. Even if you are not a fan of the band, Control is not to be missed.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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You’ve likely heard by now that Norman Mailer has passed on. I’ll let the literary critics debate his legacy as an author, but I feel duty-bound to recommend a couple of memorable films that Mailer had a hand in creating.

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Believe it or not, Mailer had four films to his credit as a director. I can’t speak for Beyond the Law (1968), Wild 90 (1968), or Maidstone (1970) because I’ve never seem them (they’re pretty obscure and currently unavailable ), but Mailer’s fourth and final directorial effort, from 1987, happens to be one of my personal cult favorites.

If “offbeat noir” is your thing, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, kinky sex, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)

Veteran noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino resurrected him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission to hear Tierny bark “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).

Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted, but his minimalist style works, giving this film a David Lynch feel (that could  be due to the fact that Isabella Rossilini co-stars and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).

I would also recommend The Executioner’s Song. A star-making turn from Tommy Lee Jones helped make this dramatization of the Gary Gilmore case one of the best “made for TV” films. Mailer adapted the teleplay from his own book (both of these titles available on DVD).

Summer of Darkness: Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has been belly belly good for aficionados of film noir (guilty, your honor!). Recent DVD reissues include Criterion’s long awaited restoration of Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, a trio from MGM including Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the WIndow, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (all three sporting transfers superior to public domain prints on previous DVDs) and now  there’s an outstanding  10-film set from Warner Brothers, the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

The real jewels among the treasures in the Warner Brothers box set are a pair of cult films that hardcore noir geeks have been itching to get their mitts on for years-Crime Wave and Decoy (both on one disc-it’s almost enough make me believe that there is a God).

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Crime Wave (1954) was directed by Andre de Toth, perhaps more well-known for directing stark westerns like Ramrod (1947) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). After languishing in B-movie obscurity for decades, this strikingly photographed, low-budget wonder has built a cult following over the years.

The story itself is fairly standard issue; an ex-con trying to go straight (Gene Nelson) is framed and blackmailed by two former cell mates (ubiquitous noir heavy Ted de Corsia and a  young Charles Bronson). Nelson’s character gets a shot at clearing himself by helping a homicide detective (played by a looming, toothpick-chewing Sterling Hayden) bring his blackmailers to justice.

The two main factors setting Crime Wave apart from other era B-movies are the meticulously composed cinematography (by DP Burt Glennon) and the ingenious use of L.A. locations. Although the decision to shoot almost exclusively on location was likely based more on pragmatism (budgetary constraints) than artistic vision, the end result was a neo-realism that makes the film seem less dated than its contemporaries. The DVD transfer is nearly flawless, taken from what looks like a pristine vault print.

I also send out major kudos to whomever it was came up with the inspired idea to pair up film noir expert extraordinaire Eddie Muller with the master of modern pulp crime fiction, James Ellroy for the commentary track. Muller’s encyclopedic torrent of fascinating trivia and savant-like grasp of All Things Noir is always worth the ride (I heartily recommend you pick up his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and having Ellroy in the passenger seat is extra icing on the cake.

Ellroy is a riot; panting and growling his way through the commentary and acting like a perverse version of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he spots and identifies familiar L.A. locales. Most interestingly, he posits Crime Wave as a spot-on visual time capsule of the 1950s LAPD milieu that informed the backdrop for the series of crime novels  referred to as his “L.A. quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). Fans of L.A. Confidential (the book and/or the movie) in particular will fall out of their chair like I did when Ellroy exclaims “That is Bud White!!” the first time Sterling Hayden’s world-weary, physically intimidating LAPD detective shambles onscreen.

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And then (hoo, boy) there’s Decoy (1946), which gets my vote for the closest thing to a David Lynch film prior to, well the moment David Lynch unleashed his first full-length feature film on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a truly demented performance from British actress Jean Gillie as one of the most psycho femme fatales ever (replete with an insane cackle that could de-calcify your spinal column at twenty paces), this mash-up of Body Heat with Re-animator defies description (although…I believe I just described it!).

Gillie masticates all available scenery as Margot Shelby, mastermind of a small gang of thieves, who comes up with an elaborate scheme to literally bring a former associate back from the dead immediately following his execution in the gas chamber (don’t ask) so she can put the squeeze on him and find out where he hid $400,000 (can’t call that a cliche narrative).

In order to get to that loot, Margot charms, uses and then unceremoniously discards a string of hapless male chumps in record time (the film runs less than 80 minutes). In the film’s most infamous scene, she runs over her lover, then just for giggles, backs up the car and runs over him again (remember, this movie predates Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by a good 20 years). A must see for genre diehards who think they’ve seen it all.

Warner is selling the five double feature discs in the box set “a la carte” as well; but they list at $20 each. I would recommend picking up the box set-Amazon and some of the brick and mortar retailers are selling the collection for around $40 (averaging out to $4.00 per title) making this set the bargain of the year for noir enthusiasts.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

2 Rock Docs: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (***1/2) & The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2007)

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This week I’m spotlighting two recent rockumentaries of merit, both available on DVD. First up is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between Dig and The Grey Gardens.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassette-only albums went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a household name of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged a balancing act between musical genius and rampant madness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The film recounts a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, amassing an ever-growing grass roots following.

Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his piloting father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America!). The rest, as they say, is History. The film also delves into Johnston’s childlike, oddly compelling drawings and paintings, which recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a must-see.

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. An alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, it was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgewick biopic, Factory Girl.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s…from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first U.S. radio DJ to break current superstars Coldplay).

While it’s “about” Rodney, the film also serves as a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of (seemingly) every major seminal figure in rock ’n’ roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself to match whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a an old beater to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a tiny, cluttered hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license collects dust next to the empty pizza boxes. Which begs the question: Is he a true “impresario”, or  a lottery-winning superfan?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose whacked-out music biz career warrants his own documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary super-groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!