All posts by Dennis Hartley

Lord, I’m so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

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(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)

Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead

-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?

I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).

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Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.

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Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.

Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.

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Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).

Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.

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On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2022)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

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So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free. After all, this is the 21st Century.

Oh, crap:

Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Friday, amid fears that fighting around the complex could trigger a radiation leak or an even bigger catastrophe.

The move came a day after the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily disconnected from the national power grid for the first time in its 40-year history, heightening fears of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.

The pills were being distributed to people who live within a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of the plant in Enerhodar, Volodymyr Marchuk, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration told NBC News.

Recipients were being told not to take them preventatively, he said, adding that they were “being distributed in case of any future radiation leak, at which time the government would instruct people to take the tablets.” […]

Earlier Friday, the country’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said the plant was being safely powered through a repaired line from the power grid, a day after it was disconnected from the national power grid. There were no issues with the plant’s machinery or safety systems, it said.

It was later announced that the plant had been reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid and was producing enough electricity to meet the country’s needs. (via NBC News)

So…there’s no immediate cause for alarm, then? Wait a minute. This just in:

Ukraine’s president on Friday said the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains “very risky” after two of its six reactors were reconnected to the grid following shelling that caused Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to be disconnected for the first time in its history.

Russian shelling continued to displace civilians in the east of the country, where three quarters of the population has fled the frontline region of Donetsk, according to the regional governor, and Ukraine continued to damage Russia’s supply routes to the southern front near Kherson. […]

Residents in Zaporizhzhia city, 50 km northeast of the plant, expressed alarm at the situation.

“Of course I am scared. Everyone is scared, we don’t know what will happen next, what is waiting for us every next minute, second,” said social media manager Maria Varakina, 25.

School teacher Hanna Kuz, 46, said people were afraid that the Ukrainian authorities might not be able to warn residents in time in case of radiation fallout. (via Reuters)

OK, then. In consideration of this week’s events, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

Oppenheimer remains a fascinating character; Christopher Nolan recently began production on a 2023 biopic titled (wait for it) Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy.

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it had never been previously available in any home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand –An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era (Wargames, The Manhattan Project, Red Dawn, et.al.).

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Blu-ray reissue: Touch of Evil (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Touch of Evil (Kino)

Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

I think I’ve quadruple-dipped by now on “definitive” editions of this film, but Kino’s 2022 reissue features the most crystalline transfer I’ve seen to date. The package includes new 4K restorations of the theatrical, preview, and ­­“reconstructed” cuts (the latter re-edited as close as possible to Welles’ original vision, based on his notes and studio memorandums). Each version includes audio commentary by film historians (two are new; others are ported over from previous editions).

Blu-ray reissue: Pink Flamingos (***)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Pink Flamingos (Criterion)

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

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

Criterion has really gone all out for this belated Blu-ray reissue, from the faux “plain brown package” cover art (replete with a mail label addressed to “Babs Johnson, A Trailer, Phoenix, MD”) to a generous helping of extras. The 4K restoration looks great (probably a little too sharp and detailed for many scenes!). There are two audio commentaries by Waters; one from the 1997 Criterion laser disc and the other from the 2001 DVD (per usual, he is never at a loss for words). Also: deleted scenes, essays, and an entertaining (new) conversation between Waters and Jim Jarmusch.

Blu-ray reissue: Heartbreakers (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Heartbreakers (Fun City Editions)

Earlier this year, I posted my picks for the top 10 1980s “sleepers”, lamenting about how several of them remained criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. I was quite surprised (and delighted) to see this 1984 gem finally making the cut.

Writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

Fun City used a newly restored 2K print for the transfer (DP on the film was longtime Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus, and his work here is gorgeous). Extras include new interviews with the director, as well as stars Coyote and Mancuso, and a booklet with several new critic essays.

Blu-ray reissue: Get Carter (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Get Carter (BFI; Region B)

Easily vying for the crown as the best British gangster film of all time (or perhaps a photo-finish with The Long Good Friday), Mike Hodges’ classic 1971 adaptation of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home was a superb showcase for star Michael Caine.

The meaty role was also a departure for Caine; while he had already played anti-heroes (most notably in the “Harry Palmer” spy film trilogy), Jack Carter was arguably the least sympathetic character he had tackled up to that point in time (bit of a sociopath, actually).

The plot is minimal: Carter, a low-level but coldly efficient London gangster hops a train to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s “accidental” death (against the strong advisement of his superiors). The deeper he digs, the more feathers he ruffles. Does he care? Fuck all. Gritty, seedy, and shockingly brutal, it’s an uncannily realistic dip into the criminal underworld.

Caine’s indelible performance is just the icing on the cake. Hodges’ assured direction, the immersive verité location filming (by Wolfgang Suschitzky), outstanding supporting cast (Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, George Sewell, Alun Armstrong, et.al.) and an unforgettable opening title sequence (driven by Roy Budd’s ultra-cool, proto-acid jazz theme) make for a heady mix.

BFI’s limited edition reissue is a real treat for fans of the film (guilty!). The 4K restoration is jaw-dropping; the film has never looked this good in a home video format. Two audio commentary tracks; one archival with Hodges, Caine and Suschitzky, the other is a new one with two film historians. There is a new 60-minute interview with Hodges, a new 17-minute feature reviewing Roy Budd’s career, an exhaustive 80-page booklet, and much more. The only catch: Please note it is Region B locked!

And playing us out…Roy Budd.

Blu-ray reissue: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (Indicator UK & US)

In his original review of Christopher Petit’s 1982 mystery-thriller, Financial Times reviewer Nigel Andrews wrote:

Petit has a wonderful compensatory feel for the drip torture of English emotion. Motive and passion are squeezed out drop-by-drop in a rural England landscape that seems bloated with past rain, and ever cloaked with pencil-grey cloud or thin sun.

In two sentences, Andrews not only nails the atmosphere of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, but articulates what I find so inexplicably compelling about Petit’s stunning 1979 debut, Radio On…a film that I simply must revisit annually, and of which I wrote:

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

Now the embarrassing part. I had no clue that a feature film adaptation of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman existed until this Blu-ray reissue was out. I am a fan of the eponymous 2-season UK television series from the late 90s (in fact, I own it on DVD), but this was an interesting discovery.

Adapted from a P.D. James novel (co-scripted by the director and Elizabeth McKay), Petit’s film stars Pippa Guard as Cordelia Grey, a young woman who unceremoniously inherits a small detective agency after discovering her boss dead in his office (little explanation is offered, and not unlike Helen Baxendale in the TV version, Guard plays Cordelia in an oddly detached manner…not having read James’ original novels, I’ll assume this is how the character is written?).

Her first case is investigating the alleged suicide of a free-spirited young man who is the son of a powerful businessman (a quietly menacing Paul Freeman). The story is more of a perverse family melodrama than a conventional mystery-thriller; but it’s fascinating watching Cordelia as she spirals into an obsession with the victim that recalls Dana Andrews’ unrequited detective in Laura. And it’s always a pleasure to watch the great Billie Whitelaw do her voodoo (as Freeman’s P.A.). This kind of slow boil may not be for all tastes; but again, this film is mostly about atmosphere.

Indicator’s transfer is taken from a new 4K scan of the original negative, accentuating DP Martin Schäfer’s artful and unique use of Afgacolor stock. Plenty of extras, including new interviews with the director, Ms. Guard’s brother Dominic (also featured in the cast), and producer Don Boyd. The exclusive limited-edition booklet includes an insightful new essay by Claire Monk and more.

I don’t feel tardy: A back-to-school mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2022)

Pfft. Wow. That was a quick friggin’ summer.

Yes, I am aware that it’s only mid-August…but students are already heading back to the classroom in some parts of the country. And watching the news lately, you would think the kids are in for a Lord of the Flies scenario:

Students across the country are heading back to school. Will there be enough teachers waiting for them? 

ABC’s World News Tonight claimed that there was a “teacher shortage crisis.” The Washington Post described a “catastrophic teacher shortage.” Some local school officials say hiring this summer has been particularly difficult.

But some researchers have been skeptical, saying that the data does not support these claims and that shortages are limited to certain schools and subjects.

So what do we know? Are teachers really leaving in droves? Will more classes begin the year led by substitutes? Did the pandemic exacerbate these issues?

What is this…a pop quiz? I don’t even have my pencil ready. Please…do continue.

Definitive data is limited, and school hasn’t started yet in much of the country. To date, there is little firm evidence to support claims of an unprecedented crisis. When American students return to school, the vast majority will be greeted by a classroom teacher. 

But the ingredients — high levels of teacher stress, more teaching positions to fill, a long-term decline in people training to become teachers, and competition from jobs outside schools — are there for it to be a harder than normal year for recruiting teachers. High-poverty schools in particular will face familiar challenges staffing their classrooms with skilled teachers.  

“Is there a national teacher shortage? I think the reality is more nuanced,” said David Rosenberg, who works with district officials across the country through the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies. “And in some places, heck yeah.”

Anyway. As great poets have said…autumn is over the long leaves that love us, yesterday is dead (but not in my memory), and it’s late September and I really should be back at school.

Well, not literally (I’m a little old for home room)…but my school days of yesteryear are not necessarily dead in my memory. I feel like I have to go to bed early now. Some habits die hard.

So here’s a back-to-school playlist that doesn’t include “The Wall” or “School’s Out” (don’t worry, you’ll get over it). Pencils down, pass your papers forward, and listen up…

“Alma Mater” – Alice Cooper

Hey, remember the time – ‘member the time
We took that snake
And put down little Betsy’s dress?
Now I don’t think Miss Axelrod
Was much impressed

Oh, Alice. You should be on the stage.

“At 17” – Janis Ian

Emo before it had a name:

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

Remember, Happy Days was just a TV show.

“Cinnamon Street” – Roxette

Growing up on Cinnamon Street
Everywhere you look there are lots of people to meet
It’s seven o’clock, the breakfast treat
Now the school bus is here, hurry up and grab a seat

Per Gessele is an underrated songwriter. A lovely sense memory from the Swedish pop-rock duo. Sadly, Marie Fredriksson passed away in 2019.

“ELO Kiddies” – Cheap Trick

So you missed some school?
You know school’s for fools
Today money rules
And everybody steals it

That’s enough out of you, you little truants!

“Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard” – Paul Simon

More troublemakers:

The mama looked down and spit on the ground
Every time my name gets mentioned
The papa said, “Oy, if I get that boy
I’m gonna stick him in the house of detention”

“My Old School” – Steely Dan

Another enigmatic narrative from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, featuring some of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s finest fretwork.

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” – The Ramones

Halfway through my list, I’m thinking: Did any of these people pay attention in class?

Well, I don’t care about history
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school
‘Cause that’s not where I wanna be
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school
I just wanna have some kicks
I just wanna get some chicks
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school

“School” – Supertramp

One of Roger Hodgson’s finer compositions. Ennio Morricone’s school days.

I can see you in the morning when you go to school
Don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule,
Teacher tells you stop your play and get on with your work
And be like Johnnie-too-good, well don’t you know he never shirks
He’s coming along

“School Days” – Chuck Berry

Hail hail to the chief. Pure rock ‘n’ roll poetry.

Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the golden rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

“Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” – Brownsville Station

I miss Cub Koda.

Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap, just ain’t my bag
The noon bells rings, you know that’s my cue
I’m gonna meet the boys on floor number two!

“Status Back Baby” – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

I think Frank needs to go to the councilor’s office for a pep talk. Wah wah wah wah.

The other night we painted posters
We played some records by the coasters
Wah wah wah wah
A bunch of pom-pom girls
Looked down their nose at me
They had painted tons of posters, I had painted three
I hear the secret whispers everywhere I go
My school spirit is at an all time low

“Teacher Teacher” – Rockpile

OK, it’s only analogous to the school experience. But hey…we never stop learning.

Young love, young pet
Cheeks flushing, apple red
Ringing you every day
Begging for a word of praise
I’ve put aside my foolish games
I run and hide and callin’ names
Miles out, the bells are ringin’
Now’s the time to teach me everything

“Thirteen” – Big Star

First crush.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you, ooh-ooh

“To Sir, With Love” – Lulu

Ode to a mentor.

A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn
What, what can I give you in return?

“Wind-up” – Jethro Tull

An English schoolboy who (I sense) has a problem with authority figures.

When I was young and they packed me off to school
And taught me how not to play the game
I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success
Or if they said that I was just a fool
So I left there in the morning
With their God tucked underneath my arm
Their half-assed smiles and the book of rules

Instant International Film Festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 6, 2022)

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Ah, the dog days of August-when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring super pets, UFOS, thunder gods, child supervillains or alpha fighter pilots with a need for speed; but if I’m in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.

If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering the Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a “Best of the Festival Festival” (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).

These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!

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Another Earth – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Full review)

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Bad Black– Some films defy description. This is one of them. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Full review)

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Full review)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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Mid-August Lunch – This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. (Full review)

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Nowhere Boy – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Full review)

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Polisse – A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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Queen of the Sun – I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us. (Full review)

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The Rocket – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a winning performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Telstar – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Full review)

Angel dust Byrons: A Rock ‘n’ Noir mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Heard about the restaurant on the Moon? Great food…no atmosphere.

Yeah, I know. You rolled out of your crib in hysterics the first time you heard that one. But let’s face it – “atmosphere” is essential; not just for breathing, but for setting a mood.

I’ve curated a noir mixtape that is all about atmosphere; 15 songs evoking dark alleys, rain-slicked streets, low-rent rooms, beautiful losers, and broken dreams. In other words, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. Besides …everyone knows tough guys don’t dance.

STAN RIDGWAY: Drive, She Said – Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” meets Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in this cinematic cabby’s tale from the former Wall of Voodoo lead singer.

THE ALLIES: Emma Peel – The Allies were an early 80s power pop band from Seattle who should have gone places. Unrequited love in the sickly glow of a cathode ray.

Emma, I’ll be your Steed
I’ll be all you ever need
If I cry and if I bleed
Will it help me?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Watching the Detectives – Another two-dimensional dream. She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake… Damn, that’s cold.

THE DOORS: Riders on the StormThere’s a killer on the road. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.

JULEE CRUISE: Summer Kisses, Winter TearsAnd nothing can light the dark of the night/Like a falling star. Somehow, that’s less than reassuring. Ms. Cruise’s Elvis cover is nothing, if not atmospheric.

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: Then Came the Last Days of MayWasn’t until the car suddenly stopped/In the middle of a cold and barren plain… A tragic tale of a drug deal gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive – I’m on the lam, but I ain’t no sheep.

Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

WAS (NOT WAS): Somewhere in America (There’s a Street Named After My Dad) – Our luckless protagonist is trapped in an asphalt jungle; dreaming of a pleasant valley Sunday.

At night only crickets
No prowlers, no sirens
No pinky ring hustlers
No angel dust Byrons
No bars on the windows
No saber-toothed neighbors
Just good simple folks
In a rainbow of flavors

MICHAEL FRANKS: Nightmoves – An instrumental version of this moody piece played under the opening credits for Arthur Penn’s eponymous 1975 neo-noir.

I keep you in frame and I whisper your name till the picture fades
The feeling is already gone, I don’t know why I’m going on
Can’t remember the ending

DAVID BAERWALD: A Secret Silken World – I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Baerwald went to find the characters for this story, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

The seats of his car were like a woman’s skin
Made me think about all those places I’ve been
It made me understand murder and the nature of sin
I leaned back and I listened to his music

AL STEWART: Broadway Hotel – According to Al Stewart, “It’s a very strange song. It’s about a woman who checks into a hotel in order to be alone. She’s alone for a little while and she orders room service. The man who comes up and brings the trey begins a lengthy relationship with her. They lock themselves in the room for about a week and then they order room service.” Oh, what does he know about it? I’m still picturing the flickering light of a neon sign stabbing through the blinds of the hotel room window…

You’re seeking a hideaway
Where the light of day
Doesn’t touch your face
And a door sign keeps the world away
Behind the shades
Of your silent day.

MICK RONSON: Slaughter on 10th Avenue – Richard Rogers originally composed this moody piece to accompany the eponymous ballet featured in Rogers and Hart’s 1936 stage musical On Your Toes. The song was revived in Robert Laven’s 1957 film noir, Slaughter on 10th Avenue…which, despite co-opting the title of the ballet from On Your Toes, had a completely different plot line (adapted from William Keating’s autobiography). A long, strange trip from a 30s ballet to a 70s rocker, but the late great guitar god of glam makes it sing.

COCKNEY REBEL: Mirror Freak –Steve Harley’s enigmatic tale of skins, spivs, and other assorted night creatures.

Oh you’re too cute to be a big rock star
But if you’re cool you may not push it too far
Oh just believe in yourself and take a tip from the elf
And sing a boogie to the image fatale

GIL SCOTT-HERON: Pieces of a Man – Everyone has their breaking point. Gil Scott-Heron’s soulful vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics render a heartbreaking tale.

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom

They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Raymond Chandler Evening – And with this selection, our coda, have a pleasant one.

It’s a Raymond Chandler Evening,
And the pavements are all wet,
And I’m lurking in the shadows
‘Cause it hasn’t happened yet.

Bonus Track!

TONY POWERSDon’t Nobody Move (This is a Heist) – This seedy nighttime crawl through the streets of New York leans toward wry comedy, but is noir-adjacent. The 1982 video was a fan favorite on USA’s Night Flight (which is where I first saw it).

They wuz towin’ me away
Cuz I don’t have
Diplomat plates
While this diplomat I know
Is smugglin’ “H”
Into the states
I said “lemmee have
The ticket ‘n the car –
Save me a trip”
So they hauled me in
For giving them
Some unauthorized lip…