Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

In Quaaludes and red wine: A New Year’s mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

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Sick of “Auld Lang Syne” ? Here are10 alternative New Year’s songs:

  1. “Time”David Bowie – From one of the greats that we lost in 2016. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

2. “1999″ – Prince – (sigh) Another musical icon that we lost in 2016.

3. “1921” – The Who – I always listen to this first thing when I wake up New Year’s Day. Somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather

4.  “Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

5.  “New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” Fabulous live version, with The Edge pulling double duty on keys.

6.  “Celtic New Year” – Van Morrison – Speaking of Ireland: Van the Man! If I don’t see you through the week, see you through the window…

7. “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

8. “Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer arrangement.  That’s Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter trading licks.

9. “New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

10. “Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late artist.

Happy New Year!

Better poke him to make sure: Revisiting Cuba on film

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2016)

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Time, he’s waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, boys

-from “Time” by David Bowie

So the dictator who once inspired a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro was finally taken out by time-honored method #639: Patience. Whether you are happy, sad or ambivalent regarding the passing of Fidel Castro, it’s inarguable that it’s been a long, strange trip for U.S.-Cuban relations since the Teflon strongman seized power in 1959.

In light of this development, I’m re-running a post that was originally inspired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to the island-nation in October of last year:

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

UPDATE [11-28-16]  #

I’m not the only one with Fidel on the brain…I received a flurry of emails from readers, who offer these excellent recommendations:

h/t to Michael I., Douglas W., Michael H., Carl C.,  & Timothy S.

Start drinking now: A mixtape for election eve

By Dennis Hartley

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Well, this is it.

We find out tomorrow if we still have a future. Drinks/meds on standby? Excellent! I brought chips ‘n’ dip. And tunes. Let’s rock:

  1. Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – “Plastic People”

2. Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction”

3. R.E.M. – “It’s the End of the World”

4.  King Crimson – “Epitaph” (isolated vocal track version)

5. The Youngbloods – “Darkness, Darkness”

6. Roy Orbison – “It’s Over”

7. The Doors – “The End”

8.  John Martyn – “I Don’t Want to Know”

9.  The Ramones – “I Wanna Be Sedated”

10. Styx – “Come Sail Away”

PLEASE VOTE.

‘Til Tuesday: 5 election movies for neurotics

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 5, 2016)

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If you’re like me (and isn’t everybody?) you’ve either mailed your ballot or made up your mind already, so you’ve just about had it up to “here” what with the negative ads and the polling and gnashing of teeth. And this election in particular has me in an unprecedented state of anxiety as November 8 approaches. I’m not sure why, I mean, there’s not much riding on it…except the future of American democracy, and the possibility of an orange fascist sitting in the Oval Office come January. However, being a glutton for punishment (and applying the inoculation theory), I’ve found that one of the best therapies for getting through the final several days of pins and needles before Election Tuesday is to dust off a few of my favorite election-themed movies and give them a spin:

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Don’s Party – Oddly enough, my favorite election night film has nothing to do with American politics. Director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) sets his story on Australia’s election night, 1969. Outgoing host Don and his uptight wife are hosting an “election party” for old college chums at their middle-class suburban home. Most of the guests range from the recently divorced to the unhappily married. Ostensibly a gathering to watch election results, talk politics and socialize, Don’s party deteriorates into a primer on bad human behavior as the booze kicks in. By the end of the night, marriages are on the rocks, friendships nearly broken and guests are skinny dipping in the vacationing neighbor’s pool. Yet, this is not just another wacky party film. David Williamson’s script (which he adapted from his own play) offers many keen observations about elitism, politics, and adult relationships. Savagely funny, brilliantly written and splendidly acted.

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Election – Writer-director Alexander Payne and creative partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed up their 1995 feature film debut, Citizen Ruth, with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory, thinly cloaked as a teen comedy (which it decidedly is not). Reese Witherspoon delivers a pitch perfect performance as the psychotically perky, overachieving Tracy Flick, who makes life a special hell for her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Much to Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, Tracy is running a meticulously organized and targeted campaign for school president. Her opponent is a more popular, but politically and strategically clueless jock (why does that sound so familiar?). Payne’s film is very funny at times, yet it never pulls its punches; there are some painful truths about the dark underbelly of suburbia bubbling beneath the veneer (quite similar to American Beauty, which interestingly came out the same year).

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Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he makes protestations to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes. He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12 year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (the actors were filmed while caught up amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it actually occurred). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and responsibility) would be more fully explored in films like Network and Broadcast News.

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Shampoo – Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie). Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings). The most memorable scene takes place at an election night event. This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

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Best of Enemies –  In this absorbing 2015 doc, co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon recount ABC’s 1968 Democratic/Republican conventions coverage debates between William F. Buckley (from the Right!) and Gore Vidal (from the Left!), culminating in an apoplectic Buckley’s threat (live, on national TV) to give Vidal a right, and a left…after calling Vidal a “queer”. It was not only the birth of TV punditry, but the opening salvo in the (still raging) culture wars. Still, compared to the odious climate of the 2016 election cycle, it almost seems quaint. This is a “must-see” for political junkies.

An elpee’s worth of covers: A Labor Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2016)

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It’s Labor Day…so I’m taking the day off as a film critic. And, I’m giving the original artists a day off so I can share an LP’s worth of my favorite cover songs. Enjoy!

  1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along the Watchtower” – “And the wind began to HOWL!” Jimi’s soaring, immaculately produced rendition (from Electric Ladyland) came out 6 months after the original appeared on Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding LP.

  1. Patti Smith– “Because the Night” – OK, Springsteen gave Patti first crack, so it could be argued that his version (recorded later) is technically the “cover”. I do feel Smith’s version is definitive (Bruce wins either way…so long as royalty checks keep rolling in).

  1. Isaac Hayes– “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” – Got 20 minutes? Hayes deconstructs Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-penned hit and builds it into an epic suite that eats up side 2 of Hot Buttered Soul. This is his magnum opus…symphonic, heartbreaking, beautiful.

  1. Savoy Brown– “Can’t Get Next To You” – A bluesy take on the Temptations hit (written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Stong). The song features fine work from Dave Walker (vocals), Paul Raymond (piano) and founding member Kim Simmonds (guitar).

  1. Judas Priest– “Diamonds and Rust” – It sounds like a comedy bit: “Here’s my impression of Judas Priest covering a Joan Baez song.” But it happened, and it’s become one of Priest’s signature tunes. This is a rare stripped-down version, from a VH-1 broadcast.

  1. Julian Cope– “5 o’clock World” – The Teardrop Explodes founder reworks a memorable Top 40 hit by 1960s pop outfit The Vogues. I love how Cope cleverly (and seamlessly) incorporates quotes from Petula Clark’s “I Know a Place” for good measure!

  1. Fanny– “Hey Bulldog” – Pre-dating The Runaways, this all-female rock band kicked ass and took names. Unfortunately, they may have been too early for the party, because they never quite caught fire. This strident Beatles cover is from their 1972 LP Fanny Hill.

  1. Clive Gregson & Christine Collister- “How Men Are” – Gregson (founder of 80s power-pop band Any Trouble) teamed up with singer-songwriter Collister to cut 5 superb albums in the 80s and 90s. Collister’s vocal on this Aztec Camera cover is transcendent.

  1. Chris Spedding– “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” – Spedding is the Zelig of the U.K. music scene; an official member of 11 bands over the years, and a session guitarist who’s played with everybody since the 70s. This Kinks cover is the title cut of his 1980 album.

  1. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes– “Leaving on a Jet Plane” – Definitely not as originally envisioned by the late John Denver…but you can dance to it. This punk pop outfit (specializing in covers) is a communal side project for members of various bands.

  1. Paul Jones – “Pretty Vacant” – I realize the gimmick of doing ironic lounge covers of punk songs is now as “ho-hum” as arrhythmic white guys trying to rap, but when this winking take on a Sex Pistols song was released in 1978, it was a novel idea at the time.

  1. David Bowie– “See Emily Play” – Bowie was always ahead of the curve; even when he went retro. All-cover theme albums weren’t quite the rage yet in 1973, which is when Bowie issued Pin Ups in homage to the 60s artists who influenced him…like Pink Floyd.

  1. The Isley Brothers– “Summer Breeze” – You could always count on the Isleys to inject just as much heart and soul into covers as they did for their own original material. This take on a Seals & Crofts classic is no exception. Ernie Isley’s guitar solo is amazing.

  1. Julee Cruise– “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” – David Lynch’s favorite chanteuse recorded this Elvis cover for the soundtrack of Wim Wender’s 1991 film Until the End of the World. This haunting rendition is quite reminiscent of the Doors’ “End of the Night”.

  1. Ronnie Montrose – “Town Without Pity” – I had the privilege of seeing this extraordinary guitarist perform in San Francisco in 1980, and 2011 in Seattle (sadly, he died in 2012). He was one of the best. This is an instrumental cover of Gene Pitney’s hit.

The big heat: The 10 sweatiest film noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2016)

With the mercury continuing to soar in many parts of the country, I thought I would cobble together a selection of “hot” film noirs. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous cinema (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and happily spending hot days ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my studio apartment…but I can always dream). So here are my Top Ten (in alphabetical order)…

Body Heat– A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming character actor named Mickey Rourke.

Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also with Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon as the (seriously-is it hot in here?) “car wash girl”. Oh… and did I mention the car wash scene?

Dog Day Afternoon– As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation). Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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 full 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, it plays as a fairly straightforward police procedural; and even if one chooses not to delve any further into subtext, it’s a perfectly serviceable and engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself to be so much more than a mere genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it still feels quite contemporary).

The Hot Spot– Considering he accumulated 100+ credits as an actor in feature films and a relatively scant 7 as a director of same over the course of a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the work he did as the former, as opposed to the latter. Still, it’s worth noting that those 7 films he directed include Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir. Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler quickly snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head. And damn, it’s hot.

In the Heat of the Night– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn. While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

The Night of the Hunter– Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like a great many films now regarded as “cult classics”, this one was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon its initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair). Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A very disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)- A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop/”last chance” gas station run by a dusty old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield needs a job. Turner needs a man. Guess what happens. An iconic noir and the blueprint for ensuing entries in the “That was good for me too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel. Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake (with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the illicit lovers) was much more “uncensored” yet somehow…not as deliciously sordid.

Touch of Evil– Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that famous opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and 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 despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

The Wages of Fear– The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but this 1953 “existential noir” from director Henri-Georges Clouzot sits atop that list. Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield. It does take a little time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel. The 1977 William Friedkin remake Sorcerer has its detractors, but I definitely recommend a peek.

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (dizzyingly overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time pre-cursor to dark, psychosexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. Tippi Hedren plays the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania (which turns out to be the least of her “issues”). Sean Connery plays a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she happens to be a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors begin to slip as he tries to maintain roles as Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest.

Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

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 sociopathic yet silver-tongued 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.

The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Like we did last summer: Top 11 Rock Musicals

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2016)

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Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off summer like a time-honored, all-American holiday that encourages the mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of highly explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with a case of Diet Dr. Pepper, a decent ration of Wha Guru Chews (I’m partial to cashew flavor) and an armload of my favorite rock musicals.

So, for your consideration (or condemnation) I now submit my Top 10 personal favorites of the genre (actually…this one goes to eleven). As per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order (to prevent fistfights). And for those who are about to rock…I salute you.

Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, the backstage squabbles, the record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day. Dependable indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does real life indie rocker/Chapel Hill music scenester Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as the Zen-like road manager (director Schultz is one of McMillan’s former band mates). The icing on the cake is the original music, an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have the catchy signature tune, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.

The Commitments-“Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Pulling together a cast of talented yet unknown actor/musicians to “play” a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius from director Alan Parker. In some ways a thematic remake of Parker’s own 1980 musical Fame, the scene moves from New York to Dublin (be on the lookout for a quick winking reference when a band member starts singing a parody of the Fame theme). These working class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy, however (several band members are “on the dole”, as they say in the UK). The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the amazing musical performances that really astonish, especially from the 16-year old lead singer, who has the soulful R & B pipes of someone who has been drinking a fifth and smoking 2 packs a day for 30 years. Gritty, realistic and spiced up with a goodly amount of ribald humor.

Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his cheeky, success-hungry hustler/manager character with real chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it fairly straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert. The film includes performances from the original Shadows (Richards’ classic backup band) which features guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are pretty dopey).

A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has often been copied, but never equaled. Shot in a verite 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 is in reality meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel-and therein lays its genius, because it still plays just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theater screens all those years ago. There’s much to savor in every frame; 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”, “If I Fell” and of course, the fab title song.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls head over heels for an American G.I., undergoes a (less than perfect) sex change operation so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park. Now completely unanchored (geographically as well as sexually) the desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out of this mess…by creating an alter-ego named Hedwig, putting a glam-rock band together, and setting out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired old tale? But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force on the part of Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this  entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).

Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions). Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example). Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic (and downright feral) “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains A sort of punk version of A Star is Born, this 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) managed to build a rabidly devoted cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot scripter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule. Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat that breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk band called The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto riot-grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way). Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, particularly due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School-As far as guilty pleasures go, this goofy bit of anarchy from the stable of legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman rates pretty high (and one suspects the creators of the film were, um, “pretty high” when they dreamed it all up). Director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance. I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own cult classics under Corman’s tutelage) and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov . I’m fairly convinced the film inspired the cult 1982 TV series Square Pegs.  R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her reputation on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle  a bit of an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. That said, it’s the only Armstrong film I’ve watched more than once. In fact, I’ve watched it many times; it’s one of my favorite “movie therapy” prescriptions (I defy you to remain depressed after viewing). It does feature a strong female character, free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy and good-natured, with lots of catchy power pop tunes (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.

Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy  Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually).  Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that can only come from someone who truly loves and understands the music. Great performances all around, with Bill Nighy a standout in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes. Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the exceptional original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.

Tommy– There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell is not known for being subtle). Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through all the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two members of the band have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear in music performance). The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ann-Margret, covered in baked beans and writhing in ecstasy! It may be raucous, garish and gross…but it’s never boring.

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2016)

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I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a “ribbon of dreams” (to quote Orson Welles) to begin with. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters, the viewer, or both are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Or was it all a dream…or a living nightmare? Maybe the protagonist is really d- …oops, spoiler alert! In alphabetical order:

Carny–This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his pal (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle. The story is raised above its inherent sleaze by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the Insult Clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curveball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full review).

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

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

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a masterful screenplay (by Robert Towne), two leads 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 have a film that deserves its designation as a “classic”. I know to expect it now, but that family secret revealed at the end still “surprises” me.

The Godfather Part II – “I knew it was you.” The betrayal (and the payback) remain two of cinema’s greatest shockers, and Coppola’s sequel is more than equal to its predecessor.

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mind fuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this one of his fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” with David Lynch). Some reviewers have suggested the film is structured as homage to The Wizard of Oz; while I wouldn’t dismiss that out of hand, I’d cautiously file it under “Pink Floyd theory” (see my review below). At any rate, this one grew on me; by the third (or fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts.

Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (quite reminiscent of the 1962 film Carnival of Souls). It’s a bit thin on narrative (critical reception was mixed), but high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rosselli. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

The Stunt Man – How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed several times by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?” That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is  filming an arty WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least. O’Toole really chews the scenery, supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield.

The Usual Suspects – What separates Bryan Singer’s sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s (aside from his tight direction) is a perfectly chosen cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), whip smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending. The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

The Wizard of Oz – So the jury is still out as to when to drop the needle. Conventional wisdom advises the 3rd roar of the MGM lion; but there are still those who would argue the case for the 1st or 2nd roar. Then is yet another school of thought that subscribes to waiting until the logo fades to black. I’m sorry, I just realized I’m being exclusionary to readers who don’t have time to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way, hunting for that sweet spot that syncs up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. At any rate, long before that mashup was but a gleam in a stoner’s reddened eye, Victor Fleming’s 1939 beloved musical fantasy had already been emulated, quoted, parodied and analyzed ad nauseam. Obviously, it’s on my list for 2(!) Big Reveals in the third act.

Too Rolling Stoned: A top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”

-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club. The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

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In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!). In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

Gimme Shelter – I sincerely hope that the Stones’ historic 2016 free concert at the Havana sports stadium went much smoother than their infamous 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show). It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly “known” for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the incident, because those scant seconds of its running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the finest “rockumentaries” ever made. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?). At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned cinematically, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light unwatchable). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting. Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the cringingly arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous. Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely playing from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have namechecked it over the years than as a true “classic”. Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He intercuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man). While we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers us a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.