Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

’68 was ’68: 10 essential rock albums

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2018)

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For some reason, whenever someone refers to the 1960s as “a turbulent decade”, I always think of one year in particular. If I may co-opt the meteorological “F-Scale” as a metaphor, while most years of that decade were stormy, 1968 was the only one to hit F-5.

As Jon Meacham wrote in a Time article from January of this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

So obviously, I am not alone in this “F-5” assessment. In fact, you may have already had it up to “here” with the 50th anniversary retrospectives, and are rolling your eyes and considering bailing on this very piece (all I am saying, is-give my piece a chance…man).

No, I’ll leave historical perspective to the historians and humbly stay “in my place” as the (alleged) pop culture maven around these here parts. I’ll be keeping it real at 33 and a 3rd.

I’ll start at 45 RPM. If you were to use Billboard’s top 10 hits of 1968 as a barometer, you might not catch wind of that sociopolitical “turbulence”. Countin’ them down like Casey Kasem: #10 was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, #9 “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, #8 “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly” theme by Hugo Montenegro, #7 “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert, #6 “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, #5 “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals, #4 (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, #3 “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, #2 “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, and the #1 song of 1968 was (drum roll please) “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

So that is a fairly eclectic mix of soul, R&B, rock, easy listening and solid MOR on that list. With the exception of The Rascals’ plea for love ‘n’ peace and the droll social satire of “Mrs. Robinson”, nothing much deeper than I love you, I miss you, the sky is blue, so let’s tighten it up now. Then again, Top 40 radio has never been a gauge of who was bringing the message to the people…but rather who is taking the most money to the bank.

Meanwhile, in 1968 the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. And in the wake of the success of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (an album which notably yielded no singles) many artists were beginning to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a whole, with a unifying theme as its center.

This was moving too fast for AM radio, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad spot breaks (OK, “Hey Jude” was over 7 minutes-but The Beatles were the exception to many rules). Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in late 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by 1968, providing a perfect platform for “deep” album cuts.

But hey, (in the immortal words of Marty DiBirgi) enough of my yakkin’. Here are my picks for the top 10 rock albums of 1968 (listed alphabetically by LP title…not by rank).

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Astral Weeks – Van Morrison

From the late great Lester Bangs’ astounding 3700 word essay regarding this album:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

Erm, what Lester said about the dichotomy of good art. Indeed, gone was the Van who was “…making love in the green grass/behind the stadium” with his “Brown-Eyed Girl” a year earlier. In his second studio album, Van was evolving, eschewing pop formulas and dipping deep into that Celtic soul that would become his stock-in-trade on later LPs like Veedon Fleece. Choice cuts: “Astral Weeks”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Madame George”.

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The Beatles (White Album) – The Beatles

From its decidedly anti-commercial, minimalist cover art, to the sprawling, 30-song set within, the Fabs at once surpassed and deconstructed everything that had previously defined them musically with this double album. With the benefit of hindsight, you could say this was really 4 solo albums rolled into one, as many of the sessions were actually assembled sans a Beatle or two (or even three). There were even a few guest musicians brought in by individual band members to sweeten some of the tunes to their own liking.

The resultant juxtaposition of scattered eclecticism was almost scary. As groundbreaking as the previous year’s Sgt. Pepper may have been,  nothing prepared unsuspecting fans for the proto-thrash of “Helter Skelter”, the faux-country novelty of “Rocky Racoon”, the reggae/ska-flavor of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the absurdist “Wild Honey Pie”, the bluegrass-flavored “Don’t Pass Me By”, or the avant-garde mindfuck of “Revolution 9.”

Still, there are many diamonds in the rough; from rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Glass Onion” and “Birthday”, to beautiful ballads like “Cry Baby Cry”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, and “Long, Long, Long.” Other highlights include John’s “Dear Prudence” and George’s epic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

If you listen carefully, you can still glean direct influences from this album in modern rock. For example, I can hear future echoes of Kurt Cobain in Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Aside from the “loud soft loud” flux of the arrangement, note how John intones “Mother Superior jump the gun” until it almost becomes hypnotic; repeating a lyrical phrase was one of Cobain’s songwriting tics (“No I don’t have a gun…). Spooky!

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Beggar’s Banquet – The Rolling Stones

Released a month after the Beatles White Album hit record stores, this set demonstrated that the Stones’ half-hearted flirtation with psychedelia on the previous year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request had been just that…a flirtation (and frankly, a Sgt. Pepper knock-off).

However, any suspicions that the band had been floundering were quashed once the needle dropped on Side 1, Cut 1: “Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste…” With that meticulously constructed invocation known as “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Stones finally became “the Stones”. They had arrived, with a strong, distinctive set that includes the spunky, anthemic “Street Fighting Man”, hard rocking “Stray Cat Blues”, and a fair amount of rootsy, acoustic-based country blues like “Prodigal Son”, “No Expectations”, and “Salt of the Earth”. One of their finest efforts.

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Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel

Even Simon & Garfunkel took a cue from Sgt. Pepper, taking their stab at a “concept” album (a song cycle about birth/life/death) with this 1968 release. Clocking in at a breezy 30 minutes, this set contains some of Paul Simon’s most enduring compositions.

Interestingly, Simon was said to have been suffering from writer’s block at the time-but you wouldn’t know it, with the likes of “Save the Life of My Child”, “America” (his best road song), “Punky’s Dilemma”, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, “At the Zoo”, and of course the bonafide classic “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded in 1967 for The Graduate soundtrack).

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Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Double albums from rock bands were still considered a novelty in 1968; you could count all previous on one hand (namely, Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967), yet the year saw double-LP sets from two significant acts: The Beatles (see above) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was Jimi’s final studio album with the Experience; while it was his most commercially successful effort, it was also his most experimental.

It’s been said that Jimi drove band mates and studio engineers nuts with his perfectionism on this project, especially with endless lead vocal takes (he was famously insecure about his voice-and of course he needn’t have been, silly man!). A majority of the cuts could be classified as “psychedelic blues-rock”, yet there are interesting side trips along the course of its four sides.

“(Have You Ever Been) To Electric Ladyland” is a soulful, 2-minute Curtis Mayfield-style kick-off belying unexpected turns to follow, from the lead kazoo solo on “Crosstown Traffic”, a powerful 15-minute slow blues rendition of “Voodoo Chile”, the epic 13-minute psychedelic tone poem “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, the now-classic cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and of course, to the most scorching, heaviest “Hendrixian” song of them all, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.

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In Search of the Lost Chord – The Moody Blues

So how did the Moody Blues follow up their pioneering 1967 “symphonic rock” opus, Days of Future Passed? Well, they followed it up with an even more solid masterpiece. As the title implies, this is a concept album about quests; quests for knowledge, for meaning, for truth (you know-nothing too heavy). Just in case you don’t understand that you are embarking on a musical journey, the band opens the album with a song called (wait for it) “Departure”. And…you’re off (with or without chemical additives-your call). An outstanding LP, impeccably produced and sonically dynamic (headphones!). Choice cuts: “Ride My Seesaw”, “House of Four Doors”, “Legend of a Mind”, and “The Actor”.

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The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks

Ray Davies fully realized a perfect musical evocation of pure distilled “Englishness” with this album. It is a suite, of sorts, weaving a portrait of a sleepy English hamlet; replete with its local flavor, rendered chiefly via stories centering on its eccentric inhabitants. You can almost smell the tea and biscuits. Pete Townshend summed it up best when he said of this collection, “For me, Village Green Preservation Society was Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.” Amen. Choice cuts: “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Picture Book”, “Johnny Thunder”, “Village Green”, “Starstruck”, and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”.

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S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things

Contrary to popular belief, The Who’s Tommy was technically not the first “rock opera”, because the UK band The Pretty Things beat them by a year with this concept album. The band’s lead singer Phil May wrote a short story that eventually morphed into this project. Not unlike Howard the Duck, the angst-ridden protagonist here (a Sebastian F. Sorrow) is trapped in a world he never made. It’s actually a pretty gloomy tale (presaging Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but the music is excellent (the tunes stand on their own). Choice cuts: “S.F. Sorrow is Born”, “My Time”, “Private Sorrow”, “Trust”, and “Loneliest Person”.

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Waiting for the Sun – The Doors

After releasing a flawless debut (The Doors) and a more hit-and-miss sophomore effort (Strange Days) the previous year, the pressure was on for the Doors to prove they could deliver on that promise to “break on through to the other side”. And deliver they did. Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Kreiger and John Densmore stretched out a little more than previous on this release, which yielded a hit single (“Hello, I Love You”) gave birth to Morrison’s “lizard king” persona (“Not To Touch the Earth”) and put forth an ominous clarion call for revolution (“Five to One”). Other choice cuts: “Love Street”, “Summer’s Almost Gone”, “The Unknown Soldier”, “Spanish Caravan”, “Yes, the River Knows”.

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We’re only in it for the Money – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

Leave it to that sly musical provocateur Frank Zappa to gleefully mock the peace love and dope ethos of the “summer of love”, while his fans were essentially still in its thrall:

Walked past the wig store

Danced at the Fillmore

I’m completely stoned

I’m hippy and I’m trippy

I’m a gypsy on my own

I’ll stay a week and get the crabs

And take a bus back home

I’m really just a phony

But forgive me—‘cuz I’m stoned.

Importantly, that is what differentiates this album from the previous 9; while the lineage of nearly all can be traced in one way or the other back to Sgt. Pepper, Zappa is openly ridiculing the concept of Sgt. Pepper. This is a concept album expressly constructed to parody concept albums (while they were still in their infancy). I mean, who DOES that?!

Choice cuts: “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” (source of the excerpted lyrics), “Absolutely Free”, “Flower Punk”, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, and “The Idiot Bastard Son.”

Run for the shadows: Top 10 Film Noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2018)

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It’s been a dark week here in Seattle. I actually mean that in a good way. Film noir expert/revivalist Eddie Muller brought his “Noir City” mini-festival to town (sponsored here by SIFF), hosting seven days of screenings at local theaters. Muller’s traveling exhibition gives audiences around the country a chance to catch films from the “classic” noir cycle on the big screen. That’s what got me thinking about my favorite genre entries.

And thinking. And thinking.

This is one of the toughest “top 10” lists I’ve tackled, because I could easily do a “top 100”. Out of the 3700 titles in my personal movie collection (I know…it’s an illness), over 800 fall in the noir/neo-noir/mystery categories. One could say I’m a little obsessed.

I had to narrow it down this way: which noirs have I re-watched the most times? That was the chief criteria behind these selections. So note going in that this is not designed to be my definitive assemblage of the most “historically important”, or “classic” noirs of all time (although several of these titles might be considered as such). These are purely personal favorites, so if this compels you to fire off a “You Philistine! I cannot believe you overlooked [insert title here]!!!” response, your indignation is duly noted beforehand.

One more note. I’m fully aware that most film scholar types generally define the “classic noir cycle” as cynical, darkly atmospheric B&W crime dramas produced between 1940 and 1959; consequently any similar entries going forward automatically get tossed into the “neo” noir bin. That said, there are some (like yours truly) who respectfully argue that the Force remains strong, at least through the mid-1970s. And so it goes. Alphabetically:

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Ace in the Hole – Billy Wilder’s 1951 film is one of the bleakest noirs ever made:

Charles Tatum: What’s that big story to get me outta here? […] I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really!

Charles Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell-if you’d only toss that cigar out the window. Real far…all the way to Los Alamos. And BOOM! (He chuckles) Now there would be a story.

Tatum (played to the hilt by Kirk Douglas) is a cynical big city newspaper reporter who drifts into a small New Mexico burg after burning one too many bridges with his former employers at a New York City daily. Determined to weasel his way back to the top (by any means necessary, as it turns out), he bullies his way into a gig with a local rag, where he impatiently awaits The Big Story that will rocket him back to the metropolitan beat.

He’s being sarcastic when he exhorts his co-workers in the sleepy hick town newsroom to get out there and make some news for him to capitalize on. But the irony in Wilder’s screenplay (co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Tatum; in his attempt to purloin and manipulate the scenario of a man trapped in a cave-in into a star-making “exclusive” for himself, it’s Tatum who ultimately becomes The Big Story. Great writing, directing and acting make it a winner.

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Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you put together a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle– This vastly under-appreciated 1973 crime drama/character study from director Peter Yates features one of the last truly great performances from genre icon Robert Mitchum, at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best as an aging hood. Peter Boyle excels in a low-key performance as a low-rent hit man, as does Richard Jordan, playing a cynical and manipulative Fed. Steven Keats steals all his scenes as a scuzzy black market gun dealer. Paul Monash adapted his screenplay from the novel by George P. Higgins. A tough and lean slice of American neo-realism, enhanced by DP Victor J. Kemper’s gritty, atmospheric use of the autumnal Boston locales.

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High and Low – Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, the film plays as a straightforward police procedural; it’s engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself as more than a genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it feels quite contemporary).

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Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich directed this influential 1955 pulp noir, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Ralph Meeker is the epitome of cool as hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer, who picks up a half-crazed (and half-naked) escapee from “the laughing house” (Cloris Leachman) one fateful evening after she flags him down on the highway. This sets off a chain of events that leads Hammer from run-ins with low-rent thugs to embroilment with a complex conspiracy involving a government scientist and a box of radioactive “whatsit” coveted by a number of interested parties.

The sometimes confounding plot takes a back seat to the film’s groundbreaking look and feel. The inventive camera angles, the expressive black and white cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), the shocking violence, and the nihilism of the characters combine to make this quite unlike any other American film from the mid-50s.

The film is said to have had an influence on the French New Wave (you can see that link when you pair it up with Godard’s Breathless). British director Alex Cox paid homage in his 1984 cult film, Repo Man (both films include a crazed scientist driving around with a box of glowing radioactive material in the trunk), and Tarantino featured a suspiciously similar box of mysterious “whatsit” in Pulp Fiction.

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Night Moves – In Arthur Penn’s 1975 sleeper, which you could call an “existential noir”, Gene Hackman delivers one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s intelligent, multi-layered screenplay parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail. I think I’ve just talked myself into watching it again.

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Strangers on a Train– There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train.

Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage.

As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The  silver-tongued sociopath Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime!

Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

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Sunset Boulevard – Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination in 1950 from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…the Best Picture statuette went to All About Eve that year). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer (and legendary director in his own right) Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder coscripted with Leigh Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

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Sweet Smell of Success– Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

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Touch of Evil – Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated (and oft-imitated) 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 stands as one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who deadpans “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. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2017

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2017)

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With the year nearly over, ‘tis the season for my roundup of the top 10 feature films out of the 50+ that I reviewed in 2017. Granted, there are several intriguing late December releases that I have yet to see, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, and the biopics I, Tonya and Film Stars Don’t Die in  Liverpool.  However, it appears those films will not be opening in Seattle in time for me to review them in 2017, so what you see here is my “official” top 10 list:

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After the Storm – This elegant family drama from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story. All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when star Hiroshi Abe and scene-stealer Kirin Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be richly rewarded.

Full review

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Bad Black – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Full review

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

Full review

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Blade Runner 2049 – So many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. Star Ryan Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances, and it works. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

Full review

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A Date for Mad Mary –  The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood.

Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Full review

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Endless Poetry – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet.

Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Full review

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I Am Not Your Negro – The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film.

Full review

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Loving Vincent – If I liken Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes…that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I’m only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life. It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a hand-painted, frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature.

The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise. While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is the most visually resplendent one that I’ve seen to date.

Full review

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The Women’s Balcony – A warm, witty and wise Israeli dramedy from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. What begins as a joyous celebration at a small synagogue takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses. This leaves the congregation with no place to worship, and no spiritual leader until their aging rabbi recovers from his resulting nervous breakdown.

Fate delivers an ambitious young rabbi, who quickly ingratiates himself as “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hasty remodeling eschews the open balcony for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services. Soon, the women find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. This coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts, resulting in a truly superb ensemble performance.

Full review

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, 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. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed and I cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

Full review

The Top 100 films since 2007, and a shameless holiday pitch

By Dennis Hartley

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since my pal Digby graciously offered me a crayon, a sippy cup and a weekly play date on her otherwise grownup site so I can scribble about pop culture.

And just over 2 years ago, I put up Den of Cinema. Initially, this blog was created as a handy archive for readers who have followed my reviews over at Digby’s place; it has evolved a bit to include additional musings about music, pop culture and politics.

You’ve probably noticed that this site remains unencumbered by flashy ads and annoying pop ups that distract you from what (I assume) you’re here for…which is to catch up on recent posts or perhaps peruse the (searchable!) archives of well over 900 posts.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

I’m not the high pressure type, so I’ll just throw this out there: This is a 100% reader-supported site, it’s “that time of year”, and if you sample the wares on a regular basis and wish to help out  with a donation (upper left corner), I would be ever so grateful.

Or don’t. Either way, you are always welcome here, and I’m just happy to know that you’re out there…somewhere, in the dark.

Anyway…Merry Crimble, and a Happy Goo Year!

So what about these “100 films” you speak of (you’re thinking?). By popular demand (heh) here are  my top 10 picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

I saw a film today: A top fab 14 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2017)

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Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films. Happily most of them are now available on home video, so maybe this will give you some stocking stuffer ideas. I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

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The Beatles Anthology-Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessive types, but there is certainly very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary). What makes it somewhat unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator. Nicely done, and a must-see for fans.

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The Compleat Beatles– Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening. It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years– As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.

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A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. The main reason to watch this film is for the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (pretty much the blueprint for MTV). And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds by 1965. It has a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Don’t miss the clever end credits!

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand– This modest sleeper was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later collaborate on bigger box office hits like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the story concerns an eventful “day in the life” of six New Jersey teenagers.

Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much. Regardless, they all end up in a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day that the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue.

Zemeckis overindulges on the door-slamming screwball slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps the story moving along nicely. Allen has a very funny (and very Freudian) scene where she lolls around the Beatles’ hotel suite, taking fetishistic stock of their possessions. The film also benefits from the original Beatles songs (licensing fees must have been a steal before Michael Jackson bought the catalog).

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Let it Be– By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties. Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?

Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.

Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).

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The Magic Christian– The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it to be “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) stumbles upon a young homeless man sleeping in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”), and the rest of the film pretty much follows in that same spirit of spontaneity.

Sir Guy sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad counterculture-fueled satires of the 60s (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a bit of a psychedelic train wreck, but it’s very funny.

Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat full of slaughterhouse offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).

Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

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Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined.

Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.

They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment.  In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.

Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!

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Nowhere Boy– This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood made the toppermost of the poppermost on my list of 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

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Produced by George Martin– While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.

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The Rutles: All You Need is Cash– Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.

Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.

Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.

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That’ll Be the Day– Anyone who ever doubted Ringo Starr’s acting abilities need look no further than this 1973 film, which proved that, if given the right material, he could deliver the goods. Although he is not the protagonist, Starr provides crucial support for David Essex, who stars as a Lennon-esque character (whose journey is continued in Stardust, the 1974 sequel about the rise and fall of a rock star).

Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the British cinema of the 60s. Essex (best-known for his music career, and his 70s hit, “Rock On”) also does a bang-up job here as young Jim MacLaine, a highly intelligent but angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (much to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a fellow carny (Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s British rocker Billy Fury performs some numbers as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the sequel).

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Yellow Submarine– Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” what all the fuss was over the “innovative” animation (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).

But, being the obsessive-compulsive completist that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning. The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.

Eat them up, yum: Top 10 Foodie Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2008)

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I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Ice Storm, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Alice’s Restaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? But TV doesn’t count.)

Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there a Walton family Thanksgiving thingy?) but apparently they are not  among my favorites. One theme that I can easily relate to, however, are movies about food (or with  at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:

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Big Night-This is one film that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters demonstrates with rather voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by an endearingly hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve (happy holidays!), which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. It might take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at  a gourmet eatery.

When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film.

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.

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Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A serio-comic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society,directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, let’s say, a “professional” eye.

In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city). One sequence, involving a hilarious, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing.

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Diner-This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”.

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

Tom Jones– Does it require an explanation?

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2017)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 2, 2017)

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Raise your glass to the hard working people
Lets drink to the uncounted heads
Lets think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead 

 –from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

Full disclosure (I am so ashamed). It had been so long since I actually stopped to contemplate the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many of my fellow wage slaves, I usually anticipate it as just another one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I’m required to spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Fair enough. OK, the nation as a whole has sort of fallen behind in the “strength, prosperity and well-being” part of that equation; but we’re working on that. Oh, and Labor Day isn’t the only “creation of the labor movement”. There’s also all that F.L.S.A. stuff about workplace rights and minimum wage and such on those posters in the break room that most of us don’t bother to read (even if we do all benefit from it).

So I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh? At any rate, I thought I would cobble together my Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, pop in a DVD, and raise a glass to yourself.

You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play a trio of Motor City auto worker buddies who are tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.  Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart growling “I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…

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El Norte– Gregory Nava’s highly effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain unfaltering optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobic viewers should be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing will give you nightmares. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending; this is an uncompromising look at the plight of undocumented workers and how they are exploited.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s powerfully affecting 1940 film (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel), so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.” Ford was on a roll; the very next year, he followed up with How Green Was My Valley, another classic about a working class family (this time set in a Welsh mining town) which snagged a Best Picture Oscar.

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Harlan County, USA-Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky back in 1973, but remains one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may find yourself ducking during an infamous, harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires off a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham– Based on a true story, this 2011 film stars the delightful Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister. More substantive, inspirational, progressive rabble-rousers like this at the multiplex, please.

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Matewan– It’s easy to forget much blood was spilled in order to lay the foundation for those labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. John Sayles remind us about that in this well-acted and handsomely mounted drama. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia coal country. Chris Cooper is excellent portraying an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a violent local conflict between coal company thugs and fed-up miners who are desperately trying to unionize.

Like all of the historical dramas he has tackled, Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). In addition to Cooper, you’ll recognize many Sayles regulars in this fine ensemble cast (like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell). The film also features a well-curated folk/blues/traditional bluegrass soundtrack.

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Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation (among other things) has aged quite well. This probably has everything to do with his  timeless embodiment of the Everyman (our technology may be evolving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are). Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% “silent”. There’s no dialogue, per se, but Chaplin does find ingenious ways to work a few lines in (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae-Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist launched what I call the “Whistle-blowin’ Workin’ Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc). Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a ‘Best Actress’ Oscar) as the title character, who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). An inspirational film, bolstered by a fine screenplay (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and supporting cast (including Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley).

On the Waterfront– “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all  there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the best American dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me-While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Celestial seasonings: A total eclipse mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 19, 2017)

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Depending on your worldview, Monday’s super-hyped solar eclipse may be interpreted as: a). A sign of the impending apocalypse, b). A sign that once in a blue moon, the moon blows in and obscures the sun, giving humanity the impression (for a few heart stopping moments) that the apocalypse has, in fact, arrived, or c). A dollar sign for event promoters, hoteliers, tow truck drivers, and people who sell cheap cardboard sunglasses.

I know. I’m a cynical bastard.

If the “Eclipse of the Century” forces people to tear themselves away from their 5 inch iPhone screen to gaze up at The Big Sky, and ponder the awesomeness and vastness of the cosmos (and most importantly, humankind’s relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things)…then I’m for it (I Googled “can you view the eclipse with a…” and right after “mirror”, “sunglasses” and “welding mask”, there it was- goddamn “iPhone”).

Do me a favor. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the horrendous traffic and wriggle through the madding crowd to snag a perfect observation point in one of the areas that will experience totality…don’t view it through a 5-inch screen…LOOK at it! Wear eye protection, of course, but experience the ACTUAL PHENOMENON! Thanks.

After all, as Carl Sagan observed:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

BTW, here’s evolutionary perspective on why we sophisticated, technically-advanced humanoids still get the tiniest little lizard brain-fueled twitch when Big Light Go Away:

With that in mind, please enjoy this special mixtape that I have assembled to accompany the solar system’s ultimate laserium show (don’t worry-I didn’t forget the Floyd, man!).

 

The Rolling Stones- “2000 Light Years from Home”

Paul Weller- “Andromeda”

The Orb- “Backside of the Moon”

Kate Bush- “The Big Sky”

Soundgarden- “Black Hole Sun”

Husker Du- “Books about UFOs”

Pink Floyd- “Brain Damage/Eclipse”

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- “Dark Star”

The Ian Gillian Band- “Five Moons”

Moxy- “Moon Rider”

King Crimson- “Moonchild”

Nick Drake- “Pink Moon”

Elton John- “Rocket Man”

David Bowie- “Space Oddity”

Liz Phair- “Stars and Planets”

Yes- “Starship Trooper”

Bonnie Hayes- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The Church- “Under the Milky Way”

Paul McCartney & Wings- “Venus + Mars”

Gamma- “Voyager”

Lazyhazycrazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 12, 2017)

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Since we’ve officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but it’s equally compelling when cameras turn away from the artists and linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t fully come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel). It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Mid-August Lunch-This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorra). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

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Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are seldom mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this all leads to amusing complications.

Love in all of its guises is represented by a bevy of richly-drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

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Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a roller coaster of emotions with an aplomb that belies their age and experience at that stage of their careers. Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

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Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile genre entry.

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A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). So a friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with Rohmer, this is as good a place as any to start.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. But don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry. In fact, even a neophyte should glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will recognize  themselves at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being only human.

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Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”? The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

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3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.