Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Let’s see what’s on the slab: Top 10 Midnight Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 29, 2010)

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Tonight, I thought I’d paw through the “midnight movie” section of my library and assemble my Top 10 picks for your All Hallows Eve holiday “cheer”. As I have around 150 titles in this genre, it wasn’t easy narrowing it down; since my tastes tend to run toward the offbeat in general, this was akin to asking someone to choose their favorite child (the hell I go through for you people). Keep in mind-when it comes to picking favorite “cult” films, the axiom “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” comes into play. As per usual, presented in alphabetical order:

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Lust in the Dust, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”.

Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Wait ‘til you meet Doris the Dominatrix!

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Eraserhead-If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my fifty-odd years on the planet, it’s that when it comes to the films of David Lynch, there is no middle ground. You either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. You buy a ticket to a Lynch film, my friend, you’d best be willing to take the ride-and he will take you for a ride. And do you want to know the really weird thing about his films? They get funnier with each viewing. Yes, “funny”, as in “ha-ha” . I think the secret to his enigmatic approach to telling a story is that Lynch is in reality having the time of his life being impenetrably enigmatic-he’s sitting back and chuckling at all the futile attempts to dissect and make “sense” of his narratives. For example, have you noticed how I’ve managed to dodge and weave and avoid giving you any kind of plot summary? I suspect that David Lynch would find that fucking hysterical.

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Forbidden Zone- Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Guy Maddin, Busby Berkeley and the Quay Brothers. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisted family who discovers a portal to a sort of pan-dimensional…aw, fuck it. Suffice it to say, any film with Herve Villchaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrell as his Queen and a scene featuring Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway in a devil costume is a dream for film geeks; and a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother, Richard.

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Harold and Maude-Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because, you see, Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to blow out 80 candles. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian slacker who amuses himself by staging fake “suicides” for the express purpose of freaking out his snobbish patrician mother (the wonderful Vivian Pickles).

He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where he and Maude “meet cute”. The effervescent Maude is Harold’s diametric opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation that any given day could be his last, she purposefully embraces each day to the fullest as if it actually were her last. Obviously, she has something to teach Harold. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that  manages to be life-affirming. The late great Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable score (one of the best movie soundtracks of all time) is by Cat Stevens.

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Liquid SkyDowntown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this one-of-a-kind sci fi offering. A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, erm, you know, reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (which I suppose makes the alien a dopamine junkie?).

At any rate, don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or you could say, non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who plays two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman also helped compose the oddly compelling electronic music score.

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The Loved One-When it was originally released back in 1965, this film had a pretty unusual tag line for the era: “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” Even by today’s standards, this one is pretty unusual. The perennially gap-toothed Robert Morse (who can be currently seen on AMC’s hit series Mad Men, playing senior partner Bertram Cooper) plays a befuddled Englishman, making a valiant effort to fully process the cultural madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood movie studio. Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable cosmetician (Anjanette Comer) who prepares “loved ones” for open casket funerals, gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically just reacts to the bevy of wack-jobs he encounters. In fact, he is the only character in the film that doesn’t seem completely out of his goddamn mind.

The unbelievable cast includes Jonathan Winters (playing several roles with his usual aplomb), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Liberace…and nothing, I mean nothing could ever prepare the uninitiated for Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer who has a very interesting relationship with his mother (who may have been the model for Edith Massey’s baby crib-bound grotesquerie in Pink Flamingos). Tony Richardson directed, and the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel.

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Meet the Feebles-Long before he was concerning himself with bringing CGI-enhanced orcs and hobbits to life, director Peter Jackson was working with considerably lower production budgets (as in: next to nothing), and letting has overactive imagination make up the difference in off-beat indie projects like this one from 1990. It’s a sordid backstage tale about a neurotic diva who heads the cast of a popular TV variety show. So what makes it a midnight movie? Well, there’s lots of graphic sex, gory violence, and drug use. OK (you may rebut) but that’s the kind of thing one can see on premium cable any day of the week. Yes-but how often do you see puppets engaging in those activities? Adorable, fuzzy-wuzzy anthropomorphic animal puppets, committing all 7 deadly sins (and a few extra ones you may have never thought of before). You really have to see it, to believe it.

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Pink Flamingos-“Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of bad taste John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man), Divine, was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her scuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it all the way through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of the oeuvre.

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Repo Man-As off-the-wall as it is, this punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by a sage veteran named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto feels he may have found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox also tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix. Great use of L.A. locations. The fabulous punk rock soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show-Arguably the ultimate midnight movie. 35 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but a killer lineup of knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred” with some readers, I will now publicly admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice…

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 best picture winners…evah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2010)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday (can’t avoid the hype). As an alleged “movie critic”, I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen 5 out of the 10 nominees for 2009’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been a number of years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my sense of film aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards over the years. And I don’t think my personal sense of film aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance as to why you may notice that no “Best Picture” winners from the last two decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 81 Academy Awards. Perhaps it is just my long-winded way of saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you kids stay off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) Capitalism: a love story. 72 years on, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play resonates anew in the light of our current woes. A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity  abounds, fueled by the contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non conformist. There’s lots of great slapstick bits, and like every screwball comedy worth its salt, there’s a scene where the entire cast ends up in a holding cell and has to explain themselves before a hapless judge.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still works in social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for some of the pervading themes in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also received the Best Director Oscar.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953)-Even though James Jones’ coarse and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor, fucking and fighting with wild abandon in the days leading up to the surprise attack was heavily sanitized for the screen adaptation, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still pretty risqué and heady adult fare for its time. Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons). And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (in his legendary “comeback” role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed (who quite literally put her wholesome image to bed by playing a prostitute). A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962)-Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. Or how commanding 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role. O’Toole gives an appropriately larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a charismatic guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their intelligent screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a surprising sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars). Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without giving praise to Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967)-“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic social commentary, 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 role; you 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 (I would imagine President Obama knows that feeling as of late).

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who picked up “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality, Poitier was the star (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a quintessential “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 appropriately bluesy soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the theme song.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969)-One of the very few times the Academy has given a nod to the dark side (add Hamlet, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, and No Country for Old Men to that list, and you can literally count it on one hand). John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. There is a memorable party scene featuring cameos from a number of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” alumnus. The location filming serves as an historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square. Schlesinger picked up a statuette for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. And, taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977)-As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he “found his voice” as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the cinematic romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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Gandhi (Best Picture of 1982)-I can still remember the first time I saw this film. It was at the single-screen Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, which at the time was the only venue in the city equipped to showcase 70mm prints in their full glory. In its original theatrical presentation, the film had an intermission, which occurred following the scene that reenacts the unthinkably horrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the lights came up in the packed house, you could hear a pin drop-but for the sound of a woman quietly sobbing in the seat right in back of me. That’s all it took for me-I began to lose it, and it quickly spread around the auditorium. I had never before (or since) experienced anything like that at a screening. And therein, dear reader lays the power of truly great film making.

RIP David Carradine: All life is precious…

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

…nor can any be replaced.

I was sad to hear about David Carradine’s passing . He may not have always been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft.

According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there).

I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:

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Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for a  fledgling director named Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.

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Americana-Carradine and Hershey teamed up again in this odd, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981) that Carradine directed and co-produced himself. He plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent) and a whole lot of weird. What really makes this film a curio in the genre is that none of the violence is perpetrated by its protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song in the closing credits. It’s worth noting this film predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are usually touted as the “first” films to deal with troubled Vietnam vets.

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Death Race 2000 At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

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Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (music was his first love).

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The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from  action film maestro Walter Hill. One of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).

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Q, The Winged SerpentI know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it actually contains one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (a demented performance) is the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some wry lines; in fact I think he displays his knack for  subtle comedy throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark.

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Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you knew at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of his most plum late-career roles, as the bad, bad, man at the top of Uma Thurman’s hit list.

T minus-5: RIP Walter Cronkite

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2009)

The passing of Walter Cronkite, just several days shy of this upcoming Monday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has added a bittersweet poignancy to the occasion that is hard for me to put into words. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some of my fondest childhood memories are of being plunked in front of the TV, transfixed by the reassuring visage of Walter Cronkite, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad. Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event?

Good times.

I thought I’d toss out a few ideas for a little Uncle Walter Space Launch Memorial Film Festival in your media room this weekend:

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The Right Stuff– Director-writer Philip Kaufman’s masterpiece (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring dramatization of the inspiring achievements by NASA’s original Mercury astronaut team. Considering it was made on a relative shoestring, the film has an amazingly expansive sense of historical scope. What keeps it all grounded, however are the richly drawn, down-to-earth characterizations that also makes it a very intimate story. It certainly didn’t hurt to have that dream cast-including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, and Levon Helm.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary is simple; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by  mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

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The Dish-A wonderful sleeper from Australia based on the true story of a little-known but crucial component in facilitating the now-iconic live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon-a tracking station that was set up in the midst of a sheep farm in Parkes, New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s gentle culture-clash comedy (it’s very reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely stirring and guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. Sitch and the same team of writers also collaborated on another film I would highly recommend: The Castle.

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For All Mankind-A unique documentary culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts themselves over a period of years. There isn’t a lot of typical documentary-style exposition; it’s a montage of imagery with narration provided strictly by the astronauts themselves. Coupled with Brian Eno’s ambient soundtrack, it has a hypnotic effect that recalls Koyaanisqatsi at times. Criterion recently released a restored DVD version.

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Apollo 13-Although it feels overly formal and somber at times, Ron Howard’s straightforward dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. It does excel at giving the viewer a sense of the gnawing, claustrophobic tension that the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming a way out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have excellent chemistry  as crew mates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, respectively. Ed Harris was born to play Ground Control’s legendary flight director, Gene Kranz (the physical resemblance is uncanny).

Creepy lodgers and seedy inns: 10 worst places to stay in the movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on October 31, 2009)

Where the wild things are.

“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So states a character in the 1932 classic, Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never stayed in any of the caravansaries on tonight’s top ten list, where the bad experiences go a bit beyond iffy room service or a fly in the soup. So on this spooky Halloween evening, I triple dog dare you to check in to any of these flops! Per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order. Um, enjoy your stay…

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The film: Barton Fink

Where not to stay: The Hotel Earle

This is one of two films on my list involving blocked writers and eerie hotels (I’ll entertain anyone’s theory on why they seem to go hand-in-hand). The Coen brothers bring their usual sense of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this story (set in the early 1940s) of a New York playwright with “integrity” (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to transplant himself to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the very least of his problems. The film is a very close cousin to Day of the Locust, although perhaps slightly less grotesque and more darkly funny. John Goodman and Judy Davis are also on hand, and in top form.

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The film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Where not to stay: The Mint Hotel

Okay, so the hotel in this one isn’t so bad. It’s the behavior going on in one of the rooms:

When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD… These were not the hoof prints of your average God-fearing junkie. It was too savage. Too aggressive.

Terry Gilliam’s manic, audience-polarizing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic blend of gonzo journalism and hilariously debauched, anarchic invention may be too savage and aggressive for some, but it’s one of those films I am compelled to revisit on an annual basis. Johnny Depp’s turn as Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke, is one for the ages. My favorite line: “You’d better pray to God there’s some Thorazine in that bag.”

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The film: Key Largo

Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel

Humphrey Bogart gives a smashing performance as a WW2 vet who drops by a Florida hotel to pay his respects to its proprietors- the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of the men who had served under his command. Initially just “passing through”, he is waylaid by a convergence of two angry tempests: an approaching hurricane and the appearance of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Rocco is a notorious gangster, who, along with his henchmen, takes the hotel residents hostage while they ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in one of his earlier starring vehicles, The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The entire cast is spectacular. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.

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The film: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Where not to stay: Mrs. Bunting’s Lodging House

Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady and all, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility that he is “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? No worries, I’m not going to spoil it for you! This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but IMHO none of them can touch Hitchcock’s 1927 silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

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The film: Motel Hell

Where not to stay: Motel Hello

OK, all together now (you know the words!): “It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” Rory Calhoun gives a sly performance as the cheerfully psychotic Vincent Smith, proprietor of the Motel Hello (oh my, there seems to be an electrical short in the neon “O”. Bzzzt!). Funny thing is, no one ever seems to check in (no one certainly ever checks out). Vincent and his oddball sister (Nancy Parsons) prefer to concentrate on the, ah, family’s “world-famous” smoked meat business. Despite the exploitative horror trappings, Kevin Conner’s black comedy (scripted by brothers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe) is a surprisingly smart genre spoof and actually quite well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.

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The film: Mystery Train

Where not to stay: The Arcade Hotel

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

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The film: The Night of the Iguana

Where not to stay: The Hotel Costa Verde

Director John Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller adapted this sordid, blackly comic soaper from Tennessee Williams’ stage play about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who has expatriated himself to Mexico, where he has become a part-time tour guide and a full-time alcoholic. One day he goes off the deep end, and shanghais a busload of Baptist college teachers to an isolated, rundown hotel run by an “old friend” (Ava Gardner). Add a sexually precocious teenager (Sue Lyon, recycling her Lolita persona) and a grifter with a prim and proper exterior (Deborah Kerr), and stir.

Most of the Williams archetypes are present and accounted for: dipsomaniacs, nymphets, repressed lesbians and neurotics of every stripe. The bloodletting is mostly verbal, but mortally wounding all the same. Burton and Kerr are great, as always. I think this is my favorite Ava Gardner performance; she’s earthy, sexy, heartbreaking, intimidating, and endearingly girlish-all at once.

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The film: The Night Porter

Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper

Disturbing, repulsive, yet compelling, Liliana Cavani’s film brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently lumped in with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. That’s a real shame.

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The film: Psycho

Where not to stay: Bates Motel

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 creepy taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what director Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant shocker from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. Anthony Perkins sets the bar pretty high for all future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

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The film: The Shining

Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel

Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel. Fuck him-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest horror film ever made. Period. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers…oh. Sorry. Uh, never mind…

Happy Halloween, everyone!

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 School Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2010)

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)- but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate,  I offer you  my Top 10 show-and-tell picks for homeroom:

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The Blackboard Jungle-I always like to refer to this searing 1955 drama (produced in an era when ADD-afflicted teenagers were referred to as “juvenile delinquents”) as the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) takes on an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents who would much rather steal hubcaps and break windows than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

Considered a hard-hitting “social issue” film at the time, it still retains considerable power, despite some dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are appropriately surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern. Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by nom de plume “Ed McBain”). The film also had a hand in making Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” a monster hit.

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The Boys of Baraka– Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer a fresh take on a time-worn cause celebre: what to do about the state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor and disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers showcase one program that strove to make a difference. T

he documentary tracks the journey of a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who go to study at a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to personalized tutoring, there is an emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered with a “tough love” approach.

Something amazing happens when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a new environment. Cliché as it sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is wondrous to observe.  There is no pat denouement, yet the viewer is left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on the momentum.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess that my attachment to Richard Linklater’s vivid 1993 recreation of a high school milieu circa 1976 has a lot to do with the sentimental chord it touches within me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music that I went into a total-immersion sense memory the first time I saw the film (I’m guessing that the first wave of boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay is more about  keen observation and genuine poignancy. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, to name a few. I give it two bongs up!

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Election-Writer-director Alexander Payne and creative partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995  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  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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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent to movie audiences: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and Sean Penn as quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe passed himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Even though I knew from frame one that this was one of those “triumph of the human spirit over insurmountable socioeconomic odds” tales engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it.

Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising  in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story, however, lies in his past. The sacrifices he made are brought deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch.

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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 ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. 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 is.

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

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if…. – In this  boldly anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the recurring character of Travis in Anderson’s  “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has ittle to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said,  Anderson’s film could be read as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, (or tangentially) The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier traded his switchblade for a lesson plan; it was his turn to play the mentor. This well-acted 1967 drama offered a bold twist on the prevalent narrative of its time period. Movie audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; in this case, you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly, white British working class students.

It’s a tour de force for director James Clavell, who also wrote and produced. Culture clash is a dominant theme in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a “swinging 60s” time capsule-thanks to an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, and an appearance by the Mindbenders (don’t blink or you’ll miss future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also with Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance) and future rock star Michael Des Barres (lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).

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Twenty-Four Eyes-This moving drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. A simple yet deeply resonant tale about a long term relationship  between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the uniformly wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”,  giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later enabled it to be discovered by Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiments. You may want to keep a box of  Kleenex on standby.

#  #  #

And now to play us out of study hall, here’s Rockpile:

Class dismissed!

Eat them up, yum: Top 10 Foodie Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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Big Night-This is one DVD that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters points out with great veracity). Two brothers, one an enterprising businessman named Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble. Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played with much aplomb by Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, and Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci). Look for a mute Marc Anthony (the Latin pop superstar) lurking throughout as the kitchen assistant.

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Comfort and Joy– Another quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth. An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies. Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and extremely dry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: It could take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to refer to as “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon chews up the scenery (figuratively and literally) as a vile and vituperative British underworld type who holds nightly court at  a gourmet restaurant. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film. The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend a rich Jacobean texture to the proceedings. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.

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Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, future dystopia along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). The film’s most memorable sequence, a wildly funny, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a master class in the arts of both film and sound editing.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s first feature film in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the others are still playing the field and deciding what to do with the rest of their life. They are all slogging fitfully toward adulthood. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite meeting place, a local diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a true gift for writing sharp dialog, and it’s all the little details that make the difference here; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it tends to ever get credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude (see below) as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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

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

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Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it: The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake. Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes. Even super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her hard work and sincere effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki). After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-her noodles are bland. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town, Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

Tom Jones-Do I really need to explain? Just savor this morsel:

Don’t nobody move: The Bank Job ***1/2 & the top 10 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 12, 2008)

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Looking at recent theater schedules, it appears that the “heist caper” is back (not that it ever went away). As of this writing, there is a Michael Caine and Demi Moore diamond heist flick, Flawless, running  in theaters. Kevin Spacey stars in 21, which concerns an attempt to fleece a Vegas casino. IFC Films has an offering called How to Rob a Bank, which is in limited release and on PPV.

I haven’t had a chance to screen any of the aforementioned, but there is yet another new heist caper I have seen. I’ll admit, I didn’t rush right out to see The Bank Job, for several reasons: 1) The generic title, 2) I usually associate  star Jason Statham with mindless action flicks, and 3) I had never forgiven director Roger Donaldson for spilling Cocktail onto theater floors (he had shown such promise in his early New Zealand days with the astounding Smash Palace).

But I must say, Donaldson has redeemed himself with his new film, based on a high-profile robbery that took place in England in the 1970s. Statham plays a low-level London criminal who is approached by an acquaintance (the lovely Saffron Burrows) with a plan to rob some safe-deposit boxes in a prestigious London bank. Unbeknownst to Statham and his gang, some of the boxes contain sex blackmail material that could potentially unseat several highly-placed members of the British government. To tell you much more would risk spoilers, so we’ll just say many twists and turns ensue.

Regardless as to how much artistic license may have been taken here, Donaldson has fashioned a terrific and surprisingly multi-layered entertainment. In fact, it not only works as a heist caper, it’s an involving political potboiler and espionage thriller as well. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have crafted a script that is pleasingly complex without being needlessly complicated (not an easy balance to strike). The movie is fast paced, but not in the headache-inducing flash cut/jerky cam manner that seems requisite these days; in this respect it hearkens back to a more classic era of movie making.

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With all these heist capers in the multiplexes, I thought I’d share my top 10 favorites. As I always emphasize,  these are my personal favorites, not the “greatest of all time” or the “most influential” (your outrage at my “failure” to include The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, etc. has been duly noted in advance, thank you).

So, in no particular order of preference, here ’tis…

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Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts. The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the  atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris. The surprise is 15 year-old Isabel Corey, an earthy, wise-beyond-her-years nymphet who had never acted before (Melville literally spotted her walking down the street and thought she would be perfect for his film). The deliciously ironic twist of the denouement makes a great kicker.

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Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and supposedly Billy Wilder had a non-credited hand in the script. To be sure, it’s basically an in-jokey vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.

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Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it does spotlight the precise planning and execution of several heists, as well as some genuinely exciting action sequences, the heart of this film is in its character development. Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship these two men have with each other, but takes great pains to show us how they each relate to the significant others in their life. De Niro and Pacino only share one brief scene, but it’s a doozy. There’s able support on hand from Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd. Those who have been anticipating another De Niro/Pacino pair-up will be happy to hear that they will be reunited in Righteous Kill, due out this fall (I saw the previews recently, and surprise surprise, its…a crime film!)

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously manipulating the airport’s own scheduled security lock down for the visit of a controversial foreign dignitary as a distraction. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to buy the blueprints for the bank, he needs to patiently seduce several women and bilk them out of their bank accounts (it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!). Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. Sadly, it’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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Topkapi– Undoubtedly, I will be raked over the coals by some readers for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively light-hearted 1964 caper romp over his much darker and more critically esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for my top 10 list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami? The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an impressive international cast that also includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum. There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery on hand. Vastly entertaining fare.

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The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios  concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together in the same film is  sublime cinematic nirvana. William Rose wrote the script (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to make one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957. I’m afraid the 2004 remake by the Coen brothers was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

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The Anderson Tapes– The great Sidney Lumet directed this nearly forgotten thriller.  Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. It’s one of the first films to ruminate on the  encroachment of electronic monitoring technology into our daily lives and the resulting loss of privacy (The Conversation was still just a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye in 1971). Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (in his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and a typically fabulous Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on top.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so its back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Robert Redford, George Segal, Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmertz ; this underlying subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same delightful young cast members would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and elaborate heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, an opportunistic platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank, secretly stashed with millions of dollars worth of gold bullion. Clint plays it straight, but there’s plenty of anachronistic M*A*S*H style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”. The excellent cast includes Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) performs the memorable theme song “Burning Bridges”.

…And just for fun, my favorite short film/ music video of all time:

The docu-horror picture show: Top 10 Documentaries for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2008)

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Whatever happened to Fay Wray?

In honor of Halloween weekend (we can call it that, when Halloween falls on a Friday, right?), and in a desperate search of a theme for this week’s post (heh), I thought I’d eschew the usual “Top 10 Horror Films” tact in favor of something really scary-real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never really match the thrills, the chills and grotesqueness of, say, reading the newspaper, watching CNN, going online to look at your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for next Tuesday’s election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.

So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 10 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?

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The Atomic Café-Whoopee we’re all gonna die! In a big, scary mushroom cloud. But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this harrowingly funny compilation of U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era, that were originally designed to “educate” the public about how to best “survive” a nuclear attack (all you have to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which generally reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage of shelling from, oh I don’t know… a really big field howitzer. The genius of the film lies in its complete lack of narration (irony speaks louder than words, too). This also gives the film a timeless quality; you could very easily apply its “message” to the current world stage (everything old is new again). It makes a perfect double bill with Dr. Strangelove.

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Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather the pressures of the trial and the media circus that surrounds it.

The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)

The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.

Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.

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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 Cruise-I used to hang out with a co-worker who had a bit of an enigmatic soul. He would pace about his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?

If you can take it, you might want to check out this one-of-a-kind doc that spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses. Levitch’s world view is, um, interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he just another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The full horror of schizophrenia can only be truly known by those who are afflicted, but this rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston comes pretty close to being the next worse thing to actually being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between inspired creativity and mental illness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).

The filmmakers recount a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.

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Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.

Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).

The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The high camp appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation (I think that’s a first for a documentary) ran for 2 years.

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

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

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

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An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. Former VP/Oscar winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties.

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Zoo-In 2005, when the Seattle press originally broke the story of a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses, that alone was disturbing . But when it was revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.

That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this is an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, filmmakers Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede keep a sensitive, neutral tone; it’s not as exploitative as you might assume.