All posts by Dennis Hartley

Long strange trip: 10 Offbeat Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2022)

https://i1.wp.com/wimwendersstiftung.de/media/BAEW03cWWS3.jpg?resize=645%2C388&ssl=1

Sam: If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

— from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

With Memorial Day weekend looming and a creeping sentiment among many (but not all) Americans that the pandemic is, erm …”behind us”, it looks like highways and sky ways are going to be absolutely packed to the gills this travel season. Via the AAA Newsroom:

The unofficial start to summer will be a busy one this year as AAA predicts 39.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend. This is an increase of 8.3% over 2021, bringing travel volumes almost in line with those in 2017. Air travel continues to rebound, up 25% over last year, the second-largest increase since 2010. With volumes closing in on pre-pandemic levels, AAA urges travelers to book now and remember flexibility is key this Memorial Day weekend.

“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months.

Air travel volume, which began to rally last Thanksgiving, will hit levels just shy of 2019 with 3 million people expected to take to the skies this Memorial Day weekend. In fact, the percentage of people traveling by air will surpass 2019 levels with 7.7% of travelers choosing air travel as their preferred mode (it was 7.5% in 2019).

“Air travel has faced several challenges since the beginning of the year,” continued Twidale. “With the type of volume we anticipate, we continue to recommend the safety net of a travel agent and travel insurance. Both are a lifesaver if something unexpectedly derails your travel plans.

Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the busiest in two years, building on an upward trend that began earlier this spring. This year’s forecast marks the second-highest single-year increase in travelers since 2010 (2021 was the highest), bringing volumes almost in line with pre-pandemic levels. Despite historic gas prices, breaching the $4 mark in early March, 34.9 million people plan to travel by car, up 4.6% over last year. A greater portion of travelers are opting for air and other modes of travel than in previous years. Share of car travel fell from 92.1% last year to 88.9% this year, a slight indication that higher prices at the pump are having an impact on how people choose to travel this Memorial Day. Regardless of which mode they choose, travelers should prepare for a busy holiday weekend.

That’s nice, but about those full flights…how are things going with air travel, now that that masking on planes is no longer mandated? Via Jonathan Wolfe in the New York Times:

[Quoting travel columnist Seth Kugel] I still recommend an N95 mask for travel. But you should also keep in mind that things are changing. I just took a flight from St. Louis to New York, and the pilot said something like, “Federal regulations no longer require you to use a mask. Please respect your fellow travelers’ choices.”

Everyone who has been pro-mask has been snidely commenting on the people who don’t wear masks for a long time, and vice versa. This pilot was saying: That’s over now.

There are fewer and fewer people who are masked on flights, and that’s just going to be the price of travel. People around you are going to be eating. They may be coughing, and you just can’t get mad at them. It’s no longer fair to do that, and it could ruin your own trip. Don’t travel if you are going to go crazy when other people don’t wear masks.

Everyone has to respect other people’s decisions for now. That’s good practice for travel anyway. When you travel, you can’t be as judgmental.

I reserve the right to be judgemental (“snidely commenting” is one of life’s greatest pleasures) …so speaking for myself, Mr. Frodo-if I take one more step beyond the grocery store, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been since early 2020. Being cautiously optimistic, I’ll stick with a “stay-cation” for Memorial Day weekend.

I do still plan on hitting the road though, via the magic of cinema. If you’d care to ride along, here are 10 road movies off the beaten path, but still well worth the trip.

https://i0.wp.com/i.pinimg.com/originals/33/c8/5b/33c85bca88d8d3a610265b54cba91f51.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

Badlands – With barely a dozen feature-length projects over nearly 50 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

https://seeingthingssecondhand.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/screenshot-501.png?resize=474%2C346

Detour – Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

https://i0.wp.com/i.pinimg.com/originals/f5/da/ed/f5daed7eb47c6abc9c0f7b0bcd0b2958.png?resize=474%2C256&ssl=1

The Hit – Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

https://i1.wp.com/tynesidecinema.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-Hitch-Hiker-image-1-e1568124789846.jpg?ssl=1

The Hitch-hiker – This 1953 film noir (directed by Ida Lupino) is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).

https://i0.wp.com/4.bp.blogspot.com/-XKbMxk-g0i8/W3PSoW75kbI/AAAAAAABZZM/Z5B9kJwndq8k55_wIcQ5Cj-kXUDl5X_9ACLcBGAs/s1600/Race+with+the+Devil+%281975%29_005+Lara+Parker-Peter+Fonda-Warren+Oates-Loretta+Swit.jpg?resize=474%2C254&ssl=1

Race with the Devil – In this 1975 thriller, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

https://skiffleboom.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/salesman1.jpg?resize=474%2C358

Salesman – Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

https://i2.wp.com/fgmxi4acxur9qbg31y9s3a15-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/04/still-of-richard-edson-eszter-balint-and-john-lurie-in-stranger-than-paradise-1984-large-picture-1600x900-c-default.jpg?ssl=1

Stranger Than Paradise – With this 1984 indie, Jim Jarmusch established his formula: long static takes with deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, unveiling a strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

https://i2.wp.com/pbs.twimg.com/media/EBeEbw4UYAADSvP.jpg?ssl=1

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 road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

https://i0.wp.com/criterion-production.s3.amazonaws.com/carousel-files/c341b2688bc388d6e7e1fbe56c0a5438.jpeg?ssl=1

Until the End of the World – Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure . However, to see it as originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along-which is why I highly recommend the recently restored 267-minute director’s cut. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

https://i2.wp.com/media.npr.org/assets/img/2019/03/15/965_image_01_wide-428fe2a3c6668bd43746921d585ccf42bd2030b9.jpg?ssl=1

Wanda – This 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama is an under-seen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country.

When the judge scolds her for being late to a child custody hearing, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than her purse. Her long, strange road trip is only beginning.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography. A unique, unforgettable, and groundbreaking film. (Full review).

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/storage.googleapis.com/hipcomic/p/29d73ebaf9145b4e4392cbddba35e8fc-800.jpg?ssl=1

I’m taking a break from sticky floors and stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then 20 (damn my OCD!).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and occasionally re-watch favorite episodes as an (alleged) adult. You can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down here.

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously struck Ricky Gervais’ fancy.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect many of the show runners of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born when Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; but its cheeky social satire is a perfect match.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

You’re nice people you are: Box of Rain (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2022)

https://rogermooresmovienation.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/box9.jpg?w=474

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass writer trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Anyway, whoever did say it originally, probably can’t remember if they were in fact the person who said it first…so it’s moot.

Here’s the good news. While the ethos that informs Lonnie Frazier’s Box of Rain has inescapable, foundational roots in 60s counterculture, I’m happy to report her documentary about the “Deadhead” community features minimal archival footage of antiwar demonstrations and love-ins, and “Fortunate Son” is nowhere to be heard. Nor will you even hear any Dead songs…which I assume is due to a licensing issue.

That said, Frazier’s film isn’t so much about the Dead …or their music per se, as it is about a multi-generational community of devoted fans blissfully nonplussed by ever-shifting musical trends (the band’s final studio album was 1989’s Built to Last ). As Jerry Garcia once observed “We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”

This uniquely symbiotic relationship between the Dead (arguably the first “D.I.Y.” band) and their fans was the impetus for their famously mercurial live performances-which could run 1 hour…or 5 hours, depending on the vibe between audience and artist:

The [1972] Bickershaw Festival [in the UK] brought together a number of West Coast American acts such as Country Joe McDonald, the New Riders, and the Dead with some of the big British names, including Donovan and The Kinks. The Dead played on the last day of the three-day festival. And by the time they came out, the crowd had been drenched and muddy for the entire time. Not had it rained throughout at the flood-prone site, but the organizers had emptied a pool used for a high-dive act – there were various circus-type performances – right in front of the stage. But none of this dampened the Dead’s playing or the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. Reportedly, Elvis Costello – just an eighteen-year-old unknown pub singer – stood in awe throughout the [nearly 5-hour] set and convinced him he should start a band.

Now that’s dedication. Or something. Whatever “it” is, it enables thousands to feel “at home” hippie-dancing in the mud for 5 hours (creating a psychedelic maelstrom of paisley and tie-dye you could see from space). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, and nobody got hurt. And if “home” is (as they say) where the heart is, then the heart of Frazier’s film is about how she found a home away from home as a Deadhead.

In the intro, Frazier intones “Most dictionaries define ‘home’ as the place where one lives permanently, as the member of a family. Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, accepted, and where you feel like you belong. But what if the family you’re born into doesn’t offer you these things? When the house you live in looks perfect from the outside…but feels quite the opposite behind closed doors?” She then recounts a traumatic experience that plunged her into a suicidal depression at age 17.

I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be about peace, love, and good vibes?” Patience, grasshopper. Fortunately, a free ticket to a Dead show proved to be a deus ex machina that placed her on a path to healing and happiness. Frazier looks up the two friends who hooked her up with the ticket and retraces the road trip the three women took in 1985 to see the Dead perform at Red Rocks in Colorado.

However, this isn’t solely a stroll down memory lane, but a Whitman’s sampler of the fan culture, direct from the mouths of beatific Deadheads. I know we live in a cynical age and all, but these folks seem so genuinely…nice, and the interviews do convey a lovely sense of “family” within the Deadhead community. It’s a breezy enough 72 minutes, even if I found the road stories and “favorite concert” minutiae less than gripping; but hey, man-I’m only a casual fan who never felt compelled to go see the Dead live, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt …and a touch of grey.

“Box of Rain” is streaming now on various digital platforms.

Any world (that I’m welcome to): 10 Sci-fi favorites

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2022)

https://i1.wp.com/www.cinefiloz.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/The-Quiet-Earth.jpg?ssl=1

I thought I’d paw through the “sci-fi” section of my collection and share ten of my favorites. Keep in mind that these are personal favorites; I was careful not to title the post “Top 10 Sci-fi Movies of All Time” (there is no more surefire way to spark a virtual bare-knuckled fracas). Anyway, here are 10 off-world adventures awaiting you now…

https://i1.wp.com/scx2.b-cdn.net/gfx/news/2018/thetalkingai.jpg?ssl=1

2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed opus. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure every detail, from the environment of prehistoric humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

In appreciation of this effort, at least once a year I will schedule a 3 hour block of time to turn off my phone, shut down my laptop, sit down calmly, take a stress pill, re-watch Kubrick’s masterpiece…and think things over.

https://i0.wp.com/miro.medium.com/max/1926/1*lXj97MWnvz1Fl30lwSNrAA.png?ssl=1

Blade Runner – What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is. Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir is set a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine. The “blade runner” of note is Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants.

Also in the cast: Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos, Brion James and Daryl Hannah. The film’s amazing production design makes it one of cinema’s most immersive “speculative futures” this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

https://i2.wp.com/lwlies.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-Day-the-Earth-caught-fire-1108x0-c-default.jpg?ssl=1

The Day the Earth Caught Fire– This cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) was written and directed by Val Guest. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill special effects, but delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring veteran scene-stealer Leo McKern.

https://i0.wp.com/www.simbasible.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/1-14.jpg

Fantastic Planet –Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally  La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster. Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mesmerizing.

https://i0.wp.com/alchetron.com/cdn/Last-Night-1998-film-images-7211ad7a-4d79-4071-8f3f-f4bcc7f02e7.jpg?ssl=1

Last Night – A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, as McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor manner (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!). Nice ensemble work by Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright. McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg a small role. The powerful denouement really packs a wallop.

https://le0pard13.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/dream_movies_slide_show-slide-4.jpg?w=474

The Lathe of Heaven – Adapted by Diane English from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel and directed by Fred Barzyk and David Loxton, this film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979.

The story is set in “near future” Portland, when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient). Bruce Davison plays George Orr, a chronic insomniac who is convinced his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is assigned to Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway) for psychiatric counseling (Haber specializes in experimental dream research).

When Haber realizes to his amazement that George does in fact have the ability to change reality with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Haber attempts to make his own Utopian visions a reality, George subverts the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly works to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. Don’t be put off by the low-tech special effects; keep in mind that this was made for public TV in 1979, on a shoestring budget.

https://i1.wp.com/rarefilm.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Hombre-mirando-al-sudeste-AKA-Man-Facing-Southeast-1986-4.jpg?ssl=1

Man Facing Southeast – Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s 1986 drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case. While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching.

https://i2.wp.com/d2ycltig8jwwee.cloudfront.net/features/693/fullwidth.3c4f8afb.jpg?ssl=1

The Man Who Fell to Earth –“Get out of my head. All of you.” If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s absorbing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the otherworldly David Bowie.

Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate. A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry.

Showtime premiered a series just last week based on Tevis’ novel. The show runners take a different tack than Roeg, by injecting more dark humor. It appears to be a sequel, not a rehash (at least judging from episode 1). Smart writing and a great cast (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris and Bill Nighy) bodes well; time will tell.

https://i1.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BZGFhNTJjYTktM2JiMC00ZTg1LWEzMzctMzVkOWY3YTNjMTE4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg?ssl=1

The Quiet Earth -Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers an unforgettable performance in this 1985 film from New Zealand. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’re entering the Andrei Tarkovsky zone. Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek on a slow night.

https://i1.wp.com/comettv.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2018/08/slaughterhouse-five.jpg?ssl=1

Slaughterhouse Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

SIFF 2022: Sweetheart Deal (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2022/Films/Features/SweetheartDeal.jpg?ssl=1

Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.

SIFF 2022: Day by Day (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2022/Films/Features/DaybyDay.jpg?ssl=1

Felix Herngren’s dramedy (scripted by Tapio Leopold) is a delightful, life-affirming road movie about…death. Before a terminally ill man (Sven Wallter) can make his getaway for a solo trip to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic, several of his longtime friends at the retirement home catch wind of his plans, and it turns into a group outing (much to his chagrin). Lovely European travelogue (nicely photographed by Viktor Davidson). Funny and touching (yes …I laughed, I cried). Sadly, Wallter passed away soon after the film wrapped, adding poignancy to his performance.

SIFF 2022: The Man in the Basement (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2022/Films/Features/ManintheBasement.jpg?ssl=1

Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann)  stars one of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One). Cluzet plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage . However, with the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple discovers to their dismay that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they discover his online persona is every progressive liberal’s nightmare. A slow-burner with a key takeaway: always check references!

SIFF 2022: Nothing Compares (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2022/Films/Features/NothingCompares.jpg?ssl=1

Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary is a beautifully constructed profile of singer Sinéad O’Connor. Arguably, O’Connor is more well-known for making her polarizing anti-Vatican remarks on SNL than for her music catalog-but history has proven not only the prescience of that stance, but how her refusal to “just shut up and sing” has inspired female artists and activists who followed in her footsteps to speak truth to power (“They tried to bury me, but didn’t realize they’d planted a seed,” she says). A superb portrait of an artist with true integrity. It’s a Showtime production, so if you’re a subscriber, keep your eyes peeled for it.

SIFF 2022: Quant (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/thecourieruk.shorthandstories.com/mary-quant/assets/hO1m1C4wYj/mary-quant-with-vidal-sassoon_-photograph-by-ronald-dumont_-1964-1-2560x1596.jpeg?resize=2560%2C1596&ssl=1

London swings like a pendulum do. A breezy doc about pioneering, self-taught fashion designer/entrepreneur Mary Quant (still kicking at 92). Sadie Frost’s portrait is a pleasant wallow in 60s nostalgia, connecting the dots between fashion statements and gender politics (“I didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib,” Quant says in an archival interview). Her heyday may be long past, but her influence is indelible. Commentators include Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss, and Dave Davies.

SIFF 2022: The Passenger (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/sitgesfilmfestival.com/sitgesadmin/uploads/pelicules_rel_img/10320954.jpg?ssl=1

I’m not really a gore fan, so I did not expect Raul Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez’s sci-fi/horror road movie to be so…fun. A self-employed shuttle driver and his three female passengers unwittingly take a parasitic alien onboard, and all hell breaks loose. Luis Sánchez-Polack’s screenplay is clever and frequently hilarious, with subtle undercurrents of social satire amid the mayhem. Think Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.