Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Writer’s block: Top 10 films about writers

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Janet Frame and Laura Jones.

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

Written by: Charles Bukowski.

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

Written by: Walter Bernstein.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Bill Manhoff and Buck Henry.

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

Written by: Alan Bennett and John Lahr.

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

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

The April Fools: Top 10 Mockumentaries

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny about love: Top 10 Romantic Comedies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 11, 2017)

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With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my top ten favorite romantic comedies with you tonight. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

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Amelie-Yes, I know this film has its share of detractors (who are nearly as passionate as Nickelback haters), but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film has stolen my heart for life. Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously similar to her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures. Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You’ll have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts (in theory).

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes gaga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys in getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as the lead singer of 80s new wavers Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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Play it Again, Sam – I don’t know what it is about this particular Woody Allen vehicle (directed by Herbert Ross), but no matter how many times I have viewed it over the years, I laugh just as hard at all the one-liners as I did the first time I saw it. Annie Hall and Manhattan may be his most highly lauded and artistically accomplished projects, but for pure “laughs per minute”, I would nominate this 1972 entry, with a screenplay adapted by Allen from his own original stage version.

Allen portrays a film buff with a Humphrey Bogart obsession. He fantasizes that he’s getting pointers from Bogie’s ghost (played to perfection by Jerry Lacy) who advises him on how to “be a man” and attract the perfect mate. He receives some more pragmatic assistance from his best friends, a married couple (Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) who fix him up with a series of women (the depictions of the various dating disasters are hilarious beyond description). A classic.

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Modern Romance (1981) – In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the inventor of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor who works for American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is becoming exasperated with his penchant to impulsively break up with her one day, then beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly a sequence where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his best roles) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie. Brooks’ brother, Bob Einstein (a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

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Next Stop, Wonderland – Writer/director Brad Anderson’s intelligent and easygoing fable about love and serendipity made me a Hope Davis fan for life. Davis plays a laid back Bostonian who finds her love life set adrift after her pompous environmental activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly decides that dashing off to save the earth is more important than sustaining their relationship. Her story is paralleled with that of a charming and unassuming single fellow (Alan Gelfant) who aspires to become a marine biologist. Both parties find themselves politely deferring to well-meaning friends and relatives who are constantly trying to fix them up with dates. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that these two may be destined to end up together. The film seems to have been inspired by A Man and a Woman, right down to its breezy bossa nova/samba soundtrack.

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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men, who are all quite aware of each other’s existence. Lee steals his own film by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as each jockeys for the alpha position (and makes some keen observations regarding sexist machismo and male vanity). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. An influential milestone for modern indie cinema.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. A genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams), McElwee has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the funniest and most thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Viewers weaned on reality TV and Snapchat may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition.

Sherman’s March actually began as a history piece, a project aiming to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth a peek as well.

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Someone to Love (1987) – The perfect Valentine’s Day movie…for dateless singles. Writer-director Henry Jaglom’s films tend to polarize viewers; his work is highly personal, usually steeped in navel-gazing reviews of his own relationships with women. In Someone to Love, Jaglom plays (surprise surprise) a film director, who invites all of his friends who are currently “in between” relationships to join him at a condemned movie theater on Valentine’s Day for a get-together. Once they arrive, Jaglom admits a small deception-he wants each to explain why they think they are alone on Valentine’s Day, and he wants to document the proceedings on film. Very talky-but fascinating. Featuring Andrea Marcovicci (who had recently broken up with Jaglom at the time of filming), Sally Kellerman, musician Steven Bishop, and Orson Welles (don’t ask).

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The Tall Guy –Deftly directed by British TV comic Mel Smith with a high-brow/low-brow blend of sophisticated cleverness and riotous vulgarity (somehow he makes it work), this is the stuff cult followings are made of. Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by an English nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a London stage comic beloved by his audience but an absolute backstage terror to cast and crew. The most hilariously choreographed sex scene ever put on film alone is worth the price of admission; and the extended set-piece, a staged musical version of The Elephant Man (a brilliant takeoff on Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me on the floor. This underrated gem is required viewing.

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Two for the Road – A swinging 60s version of Scenes from a Marriage. Director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) whips up a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini. Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Let’s party like it’s 1929: Top 10 Great Depression Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2017)

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Yesterday, after putting my head down on the desk for a spell (which I haven’t done since kindergarten), in order to process the inaugural address, I felt compelled to do a Google search using the key words “Fascism” and “ideal conditions” – and I found this:

Fascism begins by promising to make the country strong again, to restore pride. It wants to help, it wants to build a better country, it wants to improve your life. It wants to challenge a corrupt establishment and change a broken system. It wants to get people working again and get tough on crime. It doesn’t present an image of violent thugs to you, instead it shows the face of ordinary respectable people, people just like you, who have had enough. […]

So it starts with things a lot of people find attractive: national pride, restoration of glory, fighting the establishment. Then it pushes this further and further to the extreme. The nationalism become more extreme. Not only are we the best people, but all others are inferior. They only appear better because they cheat, they lie, they steal. The establishment is corrupt, the system is rigged, it is undeserving of support, it is illegitimate. The opponents are crooks, they should be put in jail. The media is suppressing the facts, censoring the truth, spreading lies, their dishonest must be silenced.  Democracy only leads to indecisive and ineffective politicians, it only elects liars too corrupt to serve the people. If only we had a strong and decisive ruler, then we could solve the country’s problems. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.

-from a post by Robert Nielsen (Whistling in the Wind blog)

The author is explaining how Fascism was able to flourish in Europe between the wars, but there are obvious parallels with the current political climate (in Europe and the U.S.).

So, with that cheery thought in mind, and in the interest of applying what I call cinematic aversion therapy, here’s my Top 10 Great Depression Movies. Study them well, because you know what “they” say: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz- When you think of the Depression in terms of film and literature, it tends to vibe America-centric. In reality, the economic downturn between wars was a global phenomenon; things were literally “tough all over”. You could say Germany had a jumpstart (economically speaking, everything below the waist was kaput by the mid 1920s). In October of 1929 (interesting historical timing), Alfred Doblin’s epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was published, then adapted into a film in 1931 directed by Phil Jutzi. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that the ultimate film version emerged as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour opus (made for German TV but also distributed as a feature film). It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate this emotionally draining epic in a few lines; it is by turns one of the most shocking, transcendent, maddening and soul-scorching films you’ll ever see. If that time investment is too daunting, you can always opt for Cabaret!

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Bonnie and Clyde– The gangster movie meets the art house in this 1967 offering from director Arthur Penn. There is much more to this influential masterpiece than the oft-referenced operatic crescendo of violent death in the closing frames; particularly of note was the ingenious way its attractive antiheroes were posited to appeal to the counterculture zeitgeist of the 1960s, even though the film was ostensibly a period piece. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were nowhere near as charismatic as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty…but we don’t care, do we? The outstanding cast includes Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and Gene Wilder in his movie debut.

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Bound for Glory– “This machine kills Fascists”. There’s only one man to whom Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen must kowtow-and that’s Woody Guthrie. You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of America’s premier protest songwriter/social activist. David Carradine gives one of his finest performances, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing. Haskell Wexler’s outstanding cinematography earned him a well-deserved Oscar. The film may feel a bit overlong and slow in spots if you aren’t particularly fascinated by Guthrie’s story; but I think it is just as much about the Depression itself, and perhaps more than any other film on this list, it succeeds as a “total immersion” back to that era.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful film or John Steinbeck’s classic source novel, so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this probably comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the heartbreak and struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take (real or imagined) comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.”

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Inserts– This 1976 sleeper from director John Byrum has been dismissed as pretentious dreck by some; it remains a cult item for others. If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, the late great Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated film, would you believe me? Dreyfuss plays a has-been Hollywood directing prodigy known as “Wonder Boy”, whose career has peaked early; he now lives in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets in pornos that he shoots in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins is memorable as the sleazy “producer”, who is also looking for investors for his scheme-an idea to open a chain of hamburger joints (his nickname is “Big Mac”). The story is set in 1930s Hollywood, and as a period wallow in the more squalid side of show biz, it’s the perfect double bill with The Day of the Locust.

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King of the Hill– Steven Soderbergh’s exquisitely photographed film (somewhat reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon) is a bittersweet rendering of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era tale about young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who lives with his parents and kid brother in a decrepit hotel. After his sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is sent away for convalescence, his kid brother is packed off to stay with relatives, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road as a traveling salesman, leaving Aaron to fend for himself. The Grand Hotel-style network narrative provides a microcosm of those who live through such times. The film is full of wonderful moments of insight into the human condition. The cast includes Karen Allen, Adrian Brody, Elizabeth McGovern and Spaulding Gray.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC version)-I’ve always preferred the original 1978 British television production of this to the Americanized theatrical version released several years afterwards. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), it is rife with the usual Potter obsessions: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by the occasional, incongruous song and dance number. Bob Hoskins is outstanding as a married traveling sheet music salesman in Depression-era England whose life takes interesting Potter-esque turns once he becomes smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two extremely creepy brothers. Probably best described as a film noir musical.

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Sullivan’s Travels-A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into more than he had bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. The Coen Brothers borrowed the title of the fictional film within the film for their own unique take on the Depression, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!” This richly decadent allegory about the human condition (adapted from Horace McCoy’s novel) is one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Director Sydney Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxes the wooden Michael Sarrazin into his finest performance. The powerful ending is devastating and difficult to shake off.

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Thieves Like Us-This loose remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film noir classic They Live by Night is the late Robert Altman’s most underrated film. It is often compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but stylistically speaking, the two films could not be farther apart. Altman’s tale of bank-robbing lovers on the lam (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) is far less flashy and stylized, but ultimately more affecting thanks to a consistently naturalistic, elegiac tone throughout. Carradine and Duvall really breathe life into their doomed couple; every moment of intimacy between them (not just sexual) feels warm, touching, and genuine-which gives the film some real heart. Altman adapted the screenplay (with co-writers Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham) from the same source novel (by Edward Anderson) that inspired Ray’s earlier film. Ripe for rediscovery.

 

Kleptocracy Now: A Top 10 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2017)

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“To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.”

– from the official website for the film, The Corporation

I don’t know about you, but my jaw is getting pretty sore from repeatedly dropping to the floor with each successive cabinet nomination by our incoming CEO-in-chief of the United States of Blind Trust. It seems that candidate Trump, who ran on an oft-bleated promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. bears little resemblance to President-elect Trump, who is currently hell-bent on loading the place up with even more alligators.

When I heard the name “Rex Tillerson” bandied about as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, it rang a bell. I knew he was the former head of Exxon, so it wasn’t that. Then I remembered. Mr. Tillerson was one of the “stars” of a documentary I reviewed several years back, called Greedy Lying Bastards (conversely, if I hear the words “greedy lying bastards,” bandied about, “Trump’s cabinet picks” is the first phrase that comes to mind).

So with that in mind, and in keeping with my occasional unifying theme, “Hollywood saw this coming”, I was inspired to comb my review archives of the last 10 years to see if any bellwethers were emerging that may have been dropping hints that the planets were aligning in such a manner as to set up a path to the White House for an orange TV clown (the “self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful” kind of orange TV clown).

All 10 of these films were released within the last 10 years. I’ll let you be the judge:

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The Big Short Want the good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ eponymous 2010 non-fiction book is an outstanding comedy-drama; an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The bad news is…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we stood by, blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Good times!  (Full review)

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Capitalism: A Love Story – Back in 2009, Digby and I did a double post on this film, which was Michael Moore’s reaction to the 2008 crash. Here’s how I viewed his intent:

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger and Me […] at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

Digby gleaned something else from the film that did a flyover on me at the time:

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn’t really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It’s a call for citizens to focus their minds on what’s actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn’t feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he’s ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.

She called it. “Someone” did tap into that populist sentiment; but sadly, it wasn’t the Left.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Forecaster – There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

And something tells me that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

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Greedy Lying Bastards – I know it’s cliché to quote Joseph Goebbels, but: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s the theme of Craig Rosebraugh’s 2013 documentary. As one interviewee offers: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.” What is the debate in question here? Global warming.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects dots between high-profile deniers (“career skeptics…in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. Shills range from media pundits (with no background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Think tanks and other organizations are exposed as mouthpieces for Big Money.

Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes-which is not reassuring. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which might come in handy after January 20th. (Full review)

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Inside Job I have good news and bad news about documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Ferguson starts where the seeds were sown-rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (“morning in America”-remember?). The film illustrates, point by point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” to enable the 2008 crisis- through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are still living with today…and I suspect it is about to get unimaginably worse.  (Full review)

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The International Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms…

What a fantasy! (Not.)

The international bank in question is under investigation by an Interpol agent (Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes, they die under mysterious circumstances. Once the agent teams up with an American D.A. (Naomi Watts), much more complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

The timing of the film’s release (in 2010) was interesting, in light of the then-current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. Screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the KISS drummer) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal.             (Full review)

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The Queen of Versailles In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 doc, billionaire David Siegel shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex in Vegas. In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (how he must have suffered).

While Greenfield’s portrait of Siegal, his wife Jackie, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs is chock full of wacky “you couldn’t make this shit up” reality TV moments, there is an elephant in the room…the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

However, there is a more chilling message, buried near the end of the film. When Siegel boasts he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.” Gosh, imagine a billionaire having the power to “buy” the POTUS of their choice. Worse yet, imagine a similarly odious billionaire becoming the POTUS. Oh.   (Full review)

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Welcome to New York While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s film is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip. The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing).

I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose (as of this writing, we don’t know the veracity of intelligence reports alleging shenanigans in a Russian hotel room that involve a “certain” President-elect, so I won’t draw any parallels…just sayin’).

It is interesting watching the hulking Gerard Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris. Jacqueline Bisset gives a good supporting turn as the long-suffering wife.   (Full review)

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The Yes Men Fix the World – Anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (aka “The Yes Men”) and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Once this springboard is established, the fun begins. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right term, but there are hijinks afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. “Corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds. It’s a call to activism that is as timely as ever.          (Full review)

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2016

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2016)

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 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. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who continues to support Hullabaloo and wish you and yours the best in 2017! ‘Tis the season to do a year-end roundup of the best films I reviewed in 2016. Alphabetically, not in order of preference:

The Curve – It’s tempting to synopsize Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders. (Full review)

Eat That Question – If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s documentary. Admittedly, the film plays best for members of the choir. If you’ve never been a fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. Still, if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb, the impressionistic approach manages to paint a compelling portrait.  (Full review)

Hail, Caesar! – Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen Brothers outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which they are able to construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. That said, there is another level to the film, one which (similar to the 2015 film Trumbo) depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the movie industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (in this case, a Hollywood “fixer” played by Josh Brolin). George Clooney hams it up as a dim-witted leading man who gets snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future (don’t ask). It’s supremely silly, yet enjoyable.  (Full review)

Home Care – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama with gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.   (Full review)

Jackie – Who among us (old enough to remember) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963? Pablo Larrain’s film fearlessly wades right inside its protagonist’s psyche, fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. The question of “why now?” might arise, to which I say (paraphrasing JFK)…“why not?”  (Full review)

Mekko – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from all. There’s more here than meets the eye, with subtexts about Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality.  (Full review)

Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

Snowden – Oliver Stone had a tough act to follow (Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour) when he tackled his biopic about Edgar Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices, but he pulls it off quite well. This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society. Stylistically speaking, the film recalls cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with a nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (Full review)

The Tunnel– Kim Seong-hun’s film is a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea, concerning a harried Everyman (Ha Jung-woo) who gets trapped in his car when a mountain tunnel collapses on top of him. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks (typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ). There’s more than meets the eye here; much akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.  Full review)

Weiner – Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given remarkable access to Anthony Weiner, his family and campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated 2013 N.Y.C. mayoral run. Their no-holds-barred film raises many interesting questions prompted in the wake of the former congressman’s “sexting” scandal (which led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011)…the most obvious one being: should ‘we’ be willing to forgive personal indiscretions (barring actual criminal offenses) of those we have voted into office? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s this chestnut: WTF were you thinking?! If you’re curious to see the film because you think it answers that one, don’t waste your time. However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get for those in the trenches, this is a must-see.   (Full review)

# # #

And  these were 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  handy quick 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

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 4 ½ hour opus 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  also set in torpid 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.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his homemade contraption 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. 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 (i.e. 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.

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.

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.