All posts by Dennis Hartley

Bloody hell…not another holiday mixtape?!

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 7, 2019)

Don’t panic. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. I promise I am not about to torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have assembled 12 fine selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts for your Xmas creel:

All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs

The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by their a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! Anyway, this is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.

Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder

There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.

Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe

As wry and tuneful as ever at age 70, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is way overdue.

Christmas in Suburbia – Martin Newell

Despite the fact that he has an ability to write hooky, jangly Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell remains a selfishly-guarded secret by many cultish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome). This is from his 1993 album The Greatest Living Englishman, which he did in collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge.

Christmas Wish – NRBQ

NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for high-energy, crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This one is from their eponymous 2007 album.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke

In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above (no photo). In the 50 years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists everywhere, introducing the world to a gifted player with a uniquely syncopated, expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.

River – Joni Mitchell

Not exactly a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and her lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. An oft-covered song, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.

Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins

Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.

Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.

My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.

Santa Claus – The Sonics

“I wanna brand new car / a twangy guitar”. These proto-punkers are local legends in my neck of the woods. Hailing from Tacoma in the early 60s, The Sonics are now generally acknowledged as major forefathers for the Seattle grunge scene of the late 80s-early 90s.

Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite

“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/former DJ Binky Griptite (ex-member of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s classic “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.

A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior

Not a Christmas song per se, but it suggests a cozy holiday scenario right from Verse 1:

Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.

A beautiful and evocative track from a woefully underappreciated UK prog-rock outfit.

‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong

The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.

 

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

https://i2.wp.com/cnet2.cbsistatic.com/img/4q72k3bV9EXh0BcUbNfkBPtrb5E=/1092x0/2019/11/19/f357e790-29a5-436f-92fe-264f3a294c38/irishman-netflix-ti-ks-069.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

https://i0.wp.com/amp.businessinsider.com/images/59f1f1323e9d2520008b5704-750-563.png?w=474&ssl=1

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

https://i1.wp.com/i.ytimg.com/vi/s-cb5iDPjlw/maxresdefault.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

https://twentyfourframes.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/suddenly1.jpg?resize=474%2C346

Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

https://i1.wp.com/parentpreviews.com/images/made/legacy-pics/manchurian-1_668_330_80_int_s_c1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

https://i0.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BODBkNWNlOTItNGJkZi00ZjBhLThkYzMtZThhZTBhMzRjMGQ0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sitemason.com/files/rAo8qk/ParallaxViewweb.jpg/main.jpg?w=474

The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

https://i0.wp.com/3.bp.blogspot.com/-uIe7HsY2UU8/WyUFdFPr1LI/AAAAAAAAXj8/2-Kjxyc77lUa8NQV3G8t2gjS-bvykENAwCLcBGAs/s1600/Donald%2BSutherland%2BJFK.PNG?w=474&ssl=1

JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2019)

https://i0.wp.com/a.ltrbxd.com/resized/sm/upload/op/w9/2b/8b/edge-of-democracy-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

Twitch and shout: Motherless Brooklyn (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2019)

https://i1.wp.com/img.cinemablend.com/filter:scale/quill/4/2/a/2/3/5/42a235d154ff5df5217fe34c513a168a885e9667.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Stanley Kubrick once stated, “I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.” I suspect that Edward Norton, the writer/director/star of Motherless Brooklyn, enthusiastically concurs.

Norton’s film, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous 1999 detective novel, qualifies as one such “slow starter”. At 144 minutes, it gives the audience ample time to ponder grace notes and soft tones; and (for the most part) avoids pounding you over the head with plot points and suspense hooks. Movies of that sort are hard to find these days.

I have not read the source novel; but I gather it is a complex murder mystery set in contemporary New York, with a largely internalized narrative from the perspective of its protagonist. Norton shifts the time period to the 1950s and channels most of the complexity into his performance as Lionel Essrog, a private dick afflicted by Tourette Syndrome. Naturally, he awards himself a juicy character role and tackles it with aplomb.

Lionel works as a P.I. for an agency headed by hard-boiled war vet Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Minna is not only Lionel’s boss, but his best friend and mentor. Minna is one of the few people who doesn’t (whether consciously or unconsciously) stigmatize him for his uncontrollable physical and vocal tics (Lionel’s co-workers call him “Freakshow”). Minna recognizes that certain ancillaries of Lionel’s condition- to wit, a photographic memory and an ability to laser in on minutiae are ideal attributes for a private investigator.

One day, Minna asks Lionel and another P.I. from the agency to accompany him for a meet he has with some shadowy individuals. Lionel is instructed to listen in on the conversation from a phone booth while his partner stands by in the car. Minna keeps his cards close to his vest as to what it’s all about but makes it obvious that he has the pair of them tagging along as backup in case the meeting goes south in a hurry. Long story short, the meeting goes south in a hurry, and before the P.I.s can intercede Minna ends up dead.

The mystery is afoot (if it’s a yard). Lionel navigates a crooked maze of avarice and corruption that runs through smoky Harlem jazz clubs, Brooklyn tenement slums and straight to the rotten core of The Big Apple (I think I missed my calling as a pulp writer).

Frankly, the mystery (while absorbing) takes a backseat to the character study and the noir-ish 1950s atmosphere (helped by nice work from cinematographer Dick Pope, whose credits include many Mike Leigh films as well as the 1990 cult favorite Dark City).

But Lionel is certainly an interesting study, augmented by a committed performance from Norton, who is one of the finest actors of his generation. As a director, Norton is rock solid if not particularly stylish. Also in the cast: Alec Baldwin (as a very Trumpian New York real estate developer), Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

It’s tempting to dub this an East Coast Chinatown, but it doesn’t “get under your skin” the same way. Still, Norton deserves credit for going against the grain of conventional modern Hollywood “product”, by making us lean in again and pay attention to the details.

…one more thing

So you’re not up for schlepping to the theater? Here are five vintage New York City-based noirs and neo-noirs that are well worth your while and readily available for home viewing:

https://i1.wp.com/www.bkmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Dog-Day-Afternoon-Brooklyn.jpg?w=474

Dog Day Afternoon (available for rent from Warner Brothers On Demand) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

https://andrewsidea.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/killerskiss4.png?w=474

Killer’s Kiss (Criterion Collection Blu-ray) – It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time.

But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s).

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

Image result for sweet smell of success 1957

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

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

https://i0.wp.com/filmfork-cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/content/pelham1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (available on Hitz and Prime Video) – In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

Image result for taxi driver 1976

Taxi Driver (available on Netflix) – Equal parts film noir, character study and sociopolitical commentary, this was one of the most important (if disturbing) films to emerge from the American film renaissance of the 1970s, due in no small part to the artistic trifecta of directing, writing  and acting  talents involved  (Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro, respectively).

De Niro plays alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who takes a night job as a cabbie. Prowling New York City’s meanest streets, Travis kills time between fares fantasizing about methods he might use to eradicate the seedy milieu he observes night after night to jibe with his exacting world view of How Things Should Be. It’s truly unnerving to watch as it becomes more and more clear that Travis is the proverbial ticking time bomb. His eventual homicidal catharsis still has the power to shock and is not for the squeamish.

The outstanding supporting cast includes a then-teenage Jodie Foster (nominated for an Oscar), Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks. The film’s memorable score is by the late Bernard Herrmann (it was one of his final projects).

The filth and the funny: Dolemite Is My Name (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2019)

Image result for dolemite is my name

When I was in the 6th Grade at Ft. Wainwright Junior High in Alaska, everyone in class was assigned to choose, memorize and recite a Robert Service poem (I’m assuming this is a uniquely Alaskan rite of passage…although I can’t speak for public school traditions in the Yukon Territories). As most Robert Service poems go on longer than the Old Testament, this is not a casual assignment. My choice… “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

Then his lips went in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell…and that one is Dan McGrew.”

There’s a lot more to it, involving a gal named Lou and how this miner dude (“fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear”) gallivants into the local saloon like Rocky Racoon lookin’ for trouble but I think I probably chose it because it gave me an opportunity to work “blue” in front of the class without being admonished by the teacher.

Flash-forward to my junior year of high school. Specifically, that is when I bought an LP called Dolemite for President completely on a whim (OK…the somewhat prurient nature of the album cover and the fact that they kept it behind the counter may have initially piqued my interest). I was also really into comedy albums at the time, and the record store clerk assured me that this obscure comic Rudy Ray Moore was a laugh riot.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I smuggled it home (I definitely did not want my parents to see the album cover, and intuitively figured it would be wise to listen with headphones). The track list was intriguing; with cuts like “Dance of the Freaks”, “Farting Contest”, “Long Island Duck”, “Sit in Your Mama’s Lap” (you can ah…Google the rest).

Side 1 opens with Moore in character as presidential hopeful “Dolemite”, who gives an expletive-laden campaign speech touting his (very!) progressive platform (inspiration for Bullworth?) From a stylistic standpoint it was a fairly standard-issue standup monologue.

But the next cut, “Stack-A-Lee”, was…poetry.

Billy said “Stack? You’re takin’ my money, so get on your knees and pray
With your life…you’re gonna have to pay.”
Stack said “Billy…are you for real? I want you to listen, and listen well
I’m the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell!”

I wasn’t able to contextualize “why” at the time, but it somehow reminded me of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (although, the miner loaded for bear didn’t refer to himself as “the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell” while calling out Dan Mcgrew).

Most bits on the album turned out to be in rhymes. Filthy, dirty rhymes. I laughed and laughed and became a Rudy Ray Moore fan. He was fresh and original; and his incorporation of long-form verse was more developed than “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” Like Redd Foxx meets The Last Poets (or Robert Service with Tourette’s).

Flash-forward 47 years (jeezus) and I’m doing background research for my review of the 2019 Moore biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. I was surprised to learn from the film that Moore’s rhyming style was not 100% “original”, after all. Rather, it was rooted in an African American oral tradition called “toasting” (not to be confused with “Here’s to your health!”). I came across this enlightening 2004 University at Buffalo news release:

“Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition,” a book collected and compiled by SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson of the University at Buffalo, is back for a second go ’round. […]

The book collects a popular form of African American literature and folk poetry known as “toasts.” For 30 years, it carried the reputation of a “stone cold classic,” mightily praised by critics, cultural historians, musicians, poets and general-interest readers alike. The book includes a new CD of Jackson’s original field recording of the toasts in the book.

“Toasts are just one aspect of a rich tradition of verbal arts in black culture,” Jackson says. “Public performance of rhyming verse has ancient African roots. And we see it now in rap and hip-hop, which are a mix of African American, Caribbean and several other traditions.

“Toasts are the starting point for rap,” he says, “both in the poetry itself and the way it was used and performed in public situations. As the novelist and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed says, if you want to understand rap and hip-hop, you’ve got to understand toasts.”

The toasts featured in the book, says Jackson, come from various sources, including street corners, barber shops, bars and jails — “places young men hang around without much to do.”

Although Jackson says the stories told in these works can be personal and intimate — and he has heard blues lyrics and Robert Service poems recited as toasts — they generally celebrate a number of folkloric figures from African-American culture like “Stackolee,” the famed bad man said to have murdered a guy over a Stetson hat […]

Hmm. After reading that, I dug deeper. The first documented reference to a song called “Stack-a-Lee” (by “Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano-thumper”) was in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald in 1897. Robert Service published “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in 1907.

I don’t hold a degree in ethnomusicology or poetry, but it does raise a tantalizing possibility that Service, like Rudy Ray Moore, could have been inspired by traditional African-American toasts (all I have to do is tell the truth …and no one ever believes me).

Not that the subject of Robert Service (or his poems) ever arises in Dolemite Is My Name (running concurrently in theaters and on Netflix), but the film does impart everything you ever wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about the late cult comedian and filmmaker.

The film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a Moore biopic to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety.

Circa 1970, Moore begins to take “professional” interest in the storytelling skills of Ricco (Ron Cephus Jones) a wino who habitually panhandles at the record store. Ricco regales anyone who has change jangling in their pockets with the raunchy misadventures of a fictional pimp/badass named “Dolemite”. Ricco delivers his tales in the form of rhymes.

This gives Moore an epiphany; he dry-runs the “Dolemite” persona on stage one night, replete with pimp regalia, street attitude, and nasty toasts, and to his delight the audience eats it up. Word-of-mouth spreads, and the new-and-improved act makes him a local hit.

To capitalize on the unexpected career surge, Moore next sets sights on making “party records” that would surpass even the bawdiness of Redd Foxx, who at the time was one of the most popular “blue” acts that was releasing “adults only” comedy albums (although it’s not mentioned in the film, Moore had already released three traditional comedy LPs between 1959 and 1964). As he was still a relative unknown quantity outside of the African American community, Moore initially had to go the D.I.Y. route.

Once he was able to gain a wider fan base from his records, Moore decided to take it to the next logical step…the movies. The final two-thirds of Dolemite Is My Name focuses on the making of Moore’s first independent film, which was called (wait for it) Dolemite.

Bereft of studio backing or deep-pocketed investors, Moore finagles an abandoned L.A. hotel as a sound stage. He assembles a mostly amateur cast, hires some UCLA film students as crew, enlists a black consciousness-woke playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) as screenwriter, and sweet-talks an actor with some Hollywood credits named D’Urville Martin to be his director (played by a scenery-chewing Wesley Snipes).

Moore casts himself as the film’s eponymous hero, a kung-fu fighting badass pimp (this was the peak of the “blaxploitation” era, in case you hadn’t picked up on that) and his stage act partner/comedy foil Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as his leading lady (made on a shoestring in 1975, every bit of Dolemite’s lack of funding and/or film-making prowess showed on the screen; nonetheless it did find an audience and became a surprise cult hit).

I was getting a strong whiff of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood while watching Brewer’s film. It immediately became clear as to “why” when I looked up Alexander and Karaszewski’s screenwriting credits and discovered Ed Wood to be among them (I’m a little slow sometimes-but I’m nothing if not intuitive).

While it doesn’t tell the complete story of Moore’s life, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.

Mind you, I wouldn’t file it under “good clean family fun”,  but Dolemite Is My Name is nonetheless an entertaining, upbeat, and affectionate portrait you won’t need to hide from your parents.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 26, 2019)

https://i1.wp.com/www.feelguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Shining350-657x360.jpg?resize=474%2C260&ssl=1

“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So says a character in the 1932 film Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never lodged in any of the dubious caravansaries on tonight’s top 10 list, where one-star Yelp ratings go beyond bad room service or a fly in the soup. So for a spooky Halloween movie night, I triple dog dare you to check in to one of these flops! As usual, I listed them alphabetically, not by ranking.

Enjoy your stay…?

https://i1.wp.com/www.encadenados.org/rdc/images/stories/rashomon/num_84/barton-fink-4.png?w=474

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 blend of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this tale (set in the 1940s) that follows the travails of an angst-ridden New York playwright (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to move to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the least of his problems.

The film is a 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.

https://i1.wp.com/img1.looper.com/img/gallery/how-fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegas-changed-johnny-depp-for-good/medium/medium_intro-1545081111.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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.”

https://i0.wp.com/1.bp.blogspot.com/-3oLz8RW8ir4/VATCb4fU2OI/AAAAAAAADZQ/yJ_POwGHUV4/s1600/key%2Blargo.png?w=474

The film: Key Largo

Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel

Humphrey Bogart stars 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 notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his henchmen.

Rocco takes the hotel residents hostage while they all ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The acting is superb. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.

https://i1.wp.com/live.staticflickr.com/3374/3340374848_fc76ea1177_z.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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 did a reprise of the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

https://nypdecider.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/motel-hell.png?w=474&h=335&crop=1

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 well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.

https://i1.wp.com/lovesimages.dazedgroup.netdna-cdn.com/640x640/azure/loves-prod/90/7/97877.jpg?w=474

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 concierge. 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).

https://i0.wp.com/derekwinnert.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/118.jpg?w=474

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 Tennessee 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.

https://i2.wp.com/www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/thenightporter.png?w=474&ssl=1

The film: The Night Porter

Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper

Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany in this dark 1974 drama. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who are entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here.

I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

https://i0.wp.com/www.arthousefilmwire.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/psycho.jpeg?w=474

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 warmup 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?

https://i2.wp.com/wallup.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/253412-the-shining-horror-thriller-dark-movie-film-748x421.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

The film: The Shining

Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel

“Hello, Danny.” It has been said that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel about a family of three who hole up in an isolated Rocky Mountain hotel for the winter. Well-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest “psychological” horror film ever made…period (OK that’s a bit hyperbolic-perhaps we can call it “a draw” with Polanski’s Repulsion).

Anyway…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, etc.

Happy Halloween!

 

My 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee picks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 19, 2019)

https://i0.wp.com/i.axs.com/2016/02/promoted-media_56ba32141eb65.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 16 nominees for 2020, which must be weeded down to 5 for the next induction.  Once again, I will dutifully fulfill my mission as an alleged pop culture critic and argue for my 5 picks (while hopefully not enraging fans of the remaining 11). Just remember kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. So relax.

The nominees: Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston, Pat Benatar, Dave Matthews Band, Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, MC5, Motörhead, Nine Inch Nails, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Todd Rundgren, Soundgarden, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy.

As usual, the Hall plays fast and loose with the definition of “rock and roll”, but there you have it. This year is a tough one; I’ve already lobbied previously for 4 of this year’s returning nominees (Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, MC5, and Todd Rundgren) and I am pushing for 2 of them again because they are way overdue. However, I am limited to 5 selections, so 3 of my picks are from among the 9 first-time nominees (just for the record, Soundgarden and Motörhead were my runner-ups from that “first-time nominee” pool).

The Doobie Brothers – Yes, I was just as surprised as you that this band wasn’t already in the Hall of Fame; one would think this is a shoo-in. They’ve been around 50 years, sold 40 million albums, and have been a staple artist on classic rock stations for decades.

There were two distinct iterations of the band’s “sound” in the course of their most productive years; the Tom Johnston era (1970-1975), and the Michael McDonald era (1975-1982). Johnston steered the band into rock-country-blues-R&B territory, and McDonald added his patented “blue-eyed soul” and jazz-pop leanings to the mix when he replaced Johnston as front man. Regardless of who was at the helm, their brand has consistently stood for well-crafted songs, tight live shows and outstanding musicianship.

Best 3 albums: Toulouse Street (1972), The Captain and Me (1973), and Takin’ It to the Streets (1976).

Kraftwerk (6th nomination…yes, SIXTH…c’mon already!) – In terms of innovation and lasting influence, this German “krautrock” outfit (founded 1970) holds the most import of my 5 selections. While not necessarily the first band to embrace electronica, they were among the first who were able to seamlessly forge the technology with pop sensibilities.

Eschewing traditional guitar-bass-drum backup for synths, vocoders, and drum machines, Kraftwerk upped the ante with self-consciously detached, metronomic vocals that caused many to snicker and dismiss the band as a novelty act in their early days.  They’re not laughing now, as Kraftwerk’s influence still flourishes in rock, hip-hop and club music.

Best 3 albums:  Autobahn (1974), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and Computer World (1981).

Todd Rundgren (2nd nomination) – It’s shocking to me that the Hall waited until last year to nominate Todd; he had my vote (it didn’t take…they never listen to me). After all, he’s been in the biz for over 50 years, and is still going strong.  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer.

Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Best 3 albums: Something/Anything? (1972), Todd (1974) and Faithful (1976).

Thin Lizzy – If the Hall wishes to uphold the integrity of the “rock” in their namesake, they’ll do the right thing and induct this first-time nominee into its ranks, pronto. Founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1969, this hard-rocking outfit was led by charismatic vocalist/bassist Phil Lynott until his untimely death in 1986.

They had a revolving door of guitarists…but what players: including Eric Bell, the late great Gary Moore, and the classic dual-guitar lineup of Scotsman Brian Robertson and American import Scott Gorham.

“Thin Lizzy Classic” pretty much died with Lynott’s passing, but the band has continued to tour in various iterations, bolstered by a strong song catalog and high-energy performances. I saw them with Deep Purple in Seattle back in 2004, and they still have it!

Best 3 albums: Vagabonds of the Western World (1973), Jailbreak (1976) and Johnny the Fox (1976)

T. Rex – Another first-time nominee that seems like a no-brainer. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex  in 1967, songwriter-lead vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of acoustic Donovan-style psychedelia before going electric, adding personnel and shortening the band name to T. Rex in 1970 (and never looking back).

Bolan’s unique coupling of hard-driving power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned a lot of heads in 1970, eventually making him the (literal) poster boy for what came to be labelled as “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs remained strongly rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit chockablock with playfully enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). With his prolific songwriting, charismatic stage presence and guitar chops, Bolan was like David Bowie and Mick Ronson rolled into one. T. Rex had a marked influence on punk-rock, New Romantic and Goth. Induct now!

Best 3 albums: Electric Warrior (1971), The Slider (1972) and Tanx (1973).

What’s on your DVR?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2019)

https://i0.wp.com/1.bp.blogspot.com/_RUn30y-EIlA/SQO_bAQHGhI/AAAAAAAAAFQ/3iD767A-6L4/s1600/crumbdespair.jpg?w=474

Years ago, in days of old (pre-internet or cable) when magic filled the air…around this time of year, we ancient folk used to look forward to TV Guide’s “New Fall Season” issue. Granted, one could say the very concept of TV “seasons” is now moot, with a growing wave of cable subscribers “cutting the cord” and saddling up to the digital streaming salad bar to power graze on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, etc., etc.

But there remain some of us who still subscribe (literally) to the Old Ways. I don’t know, perhaps it’s that tactile sensation of brandishing a remote. Or maybe it’s the warm, special feeling I get when I see my monthly Xfinity “Triple Play” bill of $200+, which not only gives me access to the interwebs and 200 channels (out of which I only watch about 15 with any regularity), but provides me with a good ol’ reliable land line, which keeps me up-to-date on all the latest phone scams (“Hello! I’m calling from Microsoft.”).

(To which I usually reply, “Eh, what’s that, young feller? Let me go fetch my ear horn!”)

If you dig around, you can still find worthwhile teevee for your viewing pleasure. It does require effort, as you must be willing to hold your nose and sift through a load of offal (read: reality TV overkill) to unearth the odd gem. For anyone who cares, here are my current top 10 Must See TV shows (with a wee bit of off-platform cheating…mea culpa).

Image result for at home with amy sedaris

At Home With Amy Sedaris (TRU-TV) – I don’t mean to judge, but if you don’t bust a gut watching At Home With Amy Sedaris there’s something seriously wrong with you. Actually, there’s something seriously wrong with Amy Sedaris…but that’s what I love about her. In this faux-lifestyle/homecraft/cooking show, she’s basically goofing on Martha Stewart-but in her own wonderfully twisted way. Sedaris plays multiple characters (all of them disturbing), assisted by a small and dexterous comedy ensemble. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently in V.O.D. for free if you have TRU in your cable package.

Image result for the deuce season 3

The Deuce (HBO) – While it sometimes feels like The Wire Lite, even a lesser effort from the great David Simon (a writer and producer for the excellent 90s series Homicide: Life on the Street and creator/head writer of the aforementioned HBO series The Wire) beats most TV fare any given day.

Now in its 3rd (and final) season, The Deuce is a network narrative that centers on the “golden age of porn” in NYC from early 70s to the mid-80s. There are several central characters; including a street walker turned porno actress turned film director (Maggie Gyellenhall), a bartender and degenerate gambler who are twin brothers (both played Patti Duke-style by James Franco) and an NYPD patrolman (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.). PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights meets Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and John Sayles’ City of Hope at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Image result for frankie drake mysteries

Frankie Drake Mysteries (CBC & Ovation) – Now in its 3rd season, this refreshingly old-school detective drama from Canada follows the escapades of the eponymous Ms. Drake (Lauren Lee Smith), a WW I veteran who founds Toronto’s first female P.I. agency. Ably assisted by her partner Trudy (Chantel Riley), Toronto P.D. “morality officer” Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) and a city morgue pathologist named Flo (Sharron Matthews) who serves as a de facto forensic specialist for the team, Frankie tackles a new case every week with pluck and aplomb.

I like the way they viably work in historical figures now and then; Ernest Hemingway was a recurring character in Season 1 (I had to look it up…but turns out he was a reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper in the 1920s!). It’s lightweight, but a lot of fun (and archly feminist). I’ve been watching in on CBC, but I see Ovation will be running episodes from the first two seasons beginning October 14.

Image result for GLOW

GLOW (Netflix) – Set in the 1980s (lot of that going around lately, I guess those are the “olden times” for some of you kids), this engaging dramedy was co-created by Liz Flahive (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie and Homeland) and Carly Mensch (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black).

The series is set in the world of women’s wrestling (which enjoyed a surge of popularity during that decade). Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead a fine ensemble cast as a pair of longtime friends and struggling actors named Ruth and Debbie, who channel their thespian skills into creating their wrestling characters “Zoya the Destroya” and “Liberty Belle” (respectively).

Marc Maron co-stars as a cynical grade-Z horror film director who now writes storylines for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s ring characters, as well as “directing” rehearsals for each match. The writing and acting is superb, with a nice balance of drama and hilarity.

Image result for goliath season 3

Goliath (Amazon Prime) – I fought long and hard against joining The Collective (as I refer to the act of “becoming an Amazon Prime member”) but between Whole Foods cashiers chirpily inquiring “Are you a Prime member?” ad nauseum-and my pal Digby and her husband browbeating me into catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 of Goliath, they wore me down. I was immediately hooked.

Billy Bob Thornton is outstanding as the central character, a brilliant but down-and-out attorney who lives in a beachfront motel in Santa Monica (the premise and vibe recalls the 70s series Harry O).

I just binged Season 3, and it’s damn near the best thing I’ve seen this year, including films (yes…I just said that). Dark, deeply weird, and wildly original (think David Lynch directs Chinatown). Great casting, superb performances, and sharp writing. My favorite quote: “Sometimes you need waffles. Sometimes you need pancakes. It’s the same fuckin’ batter.”

Related image

Mayans M.C. (FX) – If you miss The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, this Sons of Anarchy spin-off (currently in Season 2) should get your motor runnin’. The brainchild of Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and punk-rock musician/filmmaker Elgin James, the series retains the noir-ish vibe and a few characters from its forebearer but ups the ante with a more ambitious and complex network narrative.

Like its predecessor it is an ensemble piece, but still features a compelling, conflicted central character; in this case “EZ” (J.D. Pardo), a “prospect” member of the Mayans motorcycle club. He is vouched for by his older brother (Clayton Cardenas), a full-fledged member. EZ is no saint, but essentially serves as the “conscience” in this violent, amoral universe. Top-notch writing and acting.

Image result for mr robot

Mr. Robot (USA) – I have faithfully watched every episode of this tough-to-categorize drama series (which launched its much-anticipated 4th and final season last week) about a disenfranchised computer hacker- and to be perfectly honest with you, I still don’t really understand what the fuck is happening half the time. Yet I can’t wait for the next episode. Go figure. Maybe I’ve just stumbled on the secret to its wild success…always keep ‘em guessing. I don’t know. I mean, what is reality, anyway? For that matter, who am I? Why am I asking you? Who are you? How do I know you even exist? [tap, tap] Hello…friend?

Image result for MIXTAPE AXs tv
 

MIXTAPE (AXS-TV) – The premise of this program is so simple yet brilliant that I’m surprised no one has thought of it before. Each episode features a rock star talking about the artists and songs that have had the most personal impact and creative influence on them throughout their life. As the show progresses, so does a cumulative playlist of all the songs mentioned. By the end…voila! A cool mixtape. In most cases, a surprisingly eclectic mixtape that reveals more about the artist than you’d expect. Nicely done.

Related image

On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime) This social satire is set in the early 90s. Kirsten Dunst stars as a Florida woman who lives in a one-horse burg near Orlando. She has a minimum-wage job at a water park, but dreams of getting rich quick via an Amway-type pyramid scheme. At least, that appears to be the elevator pitch as Episode 1 begins. To avoid spoilers, let’s say it soon switches gears, taking more unexpected turns with each episode. Very dark and very funny (right in my wheelhouse). Quirky characters abound; a bit reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s universe (if you have read any of his novels).

Image result for one on one with paul shaffer

Paul Shaffer Plus One (AXS-TV) – Hosted by the affable Canadian keyboardist, band leader and music arranger who came to fame from his work on SNL and as David Letterman’s house band leader, this breezy half-hour show features Shaffer sitting at the piano and going one-on-one with a single guest (mostly musicians). To put it politely, he has an idiosyncratic interviewing style, but asks the right questions…especially in context of what matters most: the music!

Pretty as you feel: Chained For Life (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2019)

Image result for chained for life movie

Now the questions that come to mind: “Where is this place and when is it?” “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?” You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life – perhaps out amongst the stars – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.

— Epilogue from “Eye of the Beholder”, a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.

Depending on how far back your pop culture references go, a certain classic episode from the original Twilight Zone TV series may (or may not) keep popping into your head as you watch writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “movie within a movie” Chained For Life.

Picture if you will: a postmodernist mashup of The Elephant Man with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I’ll give you a moment). Schimberg’s film intercuts two parallel romantic affairs; one involving two fictional lead characters in an arthouse horror flick, and the other one that is developing off-set between the two actors who portray the leads.

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is the leading lady, a beautiful movie star hoping to score some art cred by working with a critic’s darling German director (Charlie Korsmo) who is making his English-language debut. Cast opposite Mabel is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a sweet-natured young man with a pronounced facial deformity. “Herr Director” is using a semi-abandoned hospital for his set, casting a dwarf, “real” Siamese twins, a “bearded lady”, and other folks with unusual physical attributes alongside professional actors like Mabel.

Rosenthal has never acted in a film before; he picks Mabel’s brain between takes for tips. He’s particularly nervous about memorizing his dialog. Mabel assures him that every actor, no matter the degree of experience, worries about that in the early days of a shoot.

“Name an emotion,” Mabel says to Rosenthal in an impromptu acting lesson. On the spot, he can’t think of one. “Sadness,” she offers, as she changes expression to match the emotion. “See?” she says, “Acting.” “I see,” says Rosenthal, “Now I’ve got one. Happiness.” Mabel obliges. “Let’s try fear,” he says. She promptly shows fear. “How about…empathy?” Rosenthal requests. Mabel begins to hedge. “So…empathy in 3-2-1, action!” he repeats. Cleverly, Schimberg keeps his camera on Rosenthal as Mabel gives it a go. “And…it’s a lot like ‘pity’. But all the same, I’m touched,” Rosenthal deadpans.

That funny/sad scene in the first act is essentially the crux of the film: “Empathy” truly is “an advanced emotion” to convey, as Mabel says to Rosenthal with a nervous laugh. Rosenthal’s resigned response to Mabel’s good intentions reveals much about what it’s like to be inside the head of someone who has no control over others’ first impressions of them (he’s thinking “different day, same old shit”). Our first reactions give us away, and honest conversations about how society treats such “outsiders” are far and few between.

Schimberg’s film, while decidedly unconventional, is eminently accessible (once you adjust to its peculiar rhythms). He is clearly a student of the Robert Altman school; highly populated shots with slow zooms from multiple cameras, overlapping dialog, and an improvised feel (although I don’t know for a fact that he gave his actors that leeway).

For me, the best scene is the denouement. Mabel is taking a taxi to the airport after the film production wraps. The camera remains solely on her while she has a conversation with the driver (who we hear, but never see). Initially, Mabel appears uncomfortable, particularly when the driver tells her she is very beautiful and then says he’s a movie fan.

“We have something in common,” the taxi driver says. “We are both artists.” He hands her a book that he has written about his escape from Nigeria. He thinks it would make a great movie. Maybe Denzel Washington can play him. “I know 9 languages,” he tells her. “I am also a math wizard.” He asks her to give him a random math problem, which he solves in seconds, Rain Man style. He tells her about his plans to produce a YouTube series that teaches children math. He dreams it will become so popular that he will be able to use his celebrity status to “ask President Trump to bring my family from Nigeria.”

“You’re an extraordinary man,” Mabel says in wonderment.

And this is an extraordinarily timely film.