All posts by Dennis Hartley

I want to believe: The Endless (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

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Solaris meets Wild Wild Country in The Endless, a new horror-sci fi-thriller from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead cast themselves as (wait for it) “Justin” and “Aaron”, two 30-ish brothers who managed to escape from a UFO death cult in their early 20s. One day they receive an enigmatic message via VHS tape. Something really “big” might be going on back at Crazy Town Ranch; something tangibly intangible. Intrigued (if wary), they decide to hit the open road and head back to the camp, hoping to gain a sense of closure about their experience.

 Yes, of course it’s a dumb decision on their part…but then again, if they laughed off the tape and moved on with their lives, you wouldn’t have much of a film, would you? Predictably, their old “friends” are overjoyed to see them again back at the old enclave (located somewhere in the scrubby wilds of Southern California’s rugged back country). The brothers make it clear this is only a visit. The cult members smile. They understand.

That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?

I won’t risk spoilers, suffice it to say if Justin and Aaron were hoping to discover there really is “something out there”, they get all that and a large orange soda. For me, the “twist” ending demotes all that precedes it into a glorified Twilight Zone episode, but hardcore genre fans should appreciate the genuine sense of dread, and what the filmmakers lack in budget is effectively compensated by their imaginative workarounds.

All in the family: Love After Love (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

Love After Love

Aldous Huxley once wrote:

Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

There is certainly no consistency in how people react to the death of a loved one. Some keen and wail and then peacefully move on. Some remain stoic and grow a tumor. Some sublimate grief by acting out over a period. And the dead, as usual, retain their even keel.

In his feature film debut Love After Love, writer-director Russell Harbaugh examines the effects of a death in the family on a freshly-widowed mother and her two adult sons. In an audacious opening scene, a beautiful middle-aged woman (Andie MacDowell) and a young man (Chris O’Dowd) engage in an almost uncomfortably intimate conversation about love and happiness (after all, we’ve just met these two people). Imagine our surprise when we find out that they are not lovers, but mother and son. Not a shy family.

They are, in fact, a family in crisis. The woman, Suzanne, her son Nicholas, and his younger brother Chris (James Adomian) are bracing for the imminent passing of husband and father Glenn (Gareth Williams). Nicholas, his girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rhylance) and Chris have come in from New York City to attend a gathering at their parents’ upstate country spread (Suzanne and Glenn, both theater professors, have obviously done well financially). We see Glenn up and around, enjoying himself with friends and family.

However, once the party is over and Chris, Nicholas and Rebecca drive off, it becomes apparent that Glenn is receiving in-home hospice care and is clearly near the end. When the inevitable occurs, Harbaugh depicts Glenn’s death in a stark, unblinking manner; maintaining that tone of seat-squirming intimacy that he establishes in his opening scene.

From this point forward, there are time jumps showing how mother and sons are coping. Suzanne pursues half-hearted relationships (“I still feel like I’m being unfaithful,” she blurts out to one lover, while in a post-coital funk). Nicholas cheats on Rebecca; after she dumps him he impulsively asks his clandestine girlfriend (Dree Hemingway) to marry him. Chris flounders; frequently embarrassing himself and his family due to a drinking problem. Long-suppressed resentments between Suzanne and Nicholas come to a head. There are many accusations and recriminations.  What family doesn’t have its problems?

The emotional centerpiece is an astounding 10-minute monolog about death and grieving from Chris, who is doing an open mic set at a comedy club (Adomian is a stand-up in real life). Harbaugh holds Chris’ face in close-up for most of the scene, which also serves as a Greek Chorus that contextualizes everything we’ve observed in the film up to that point.

Harbaugh (along with co-writer Eric Mendelsohn) has delivered a tautly-scripted 90-minute film about a difficult subject that is brutally honest, yet genuinely resonant. There are strong echoes of John Cassavetes. I’m sure Harbaugh has studied his work; I sensed this from the naturalistic tone, and in the comfortable manner the actors inhabit their characters, without coming off as “actor-ly”. Not always easy to watch…kind of like life.

Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2018)

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first collective selfie…the “Earthrise” photo from the Apollo 8 mission. It may seem “ho-hum” now, but it provided a profound moment of “cosmic perspective” (if I borrow one of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite phrases) for anyone in the world who gave a damn.

The iconic portrait was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind the photo is recounted on NASA’s official website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

The Trump administration’s tumultuous first year has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.

Needless to say, many “updates” follow that intro (the most recent one is from April 6, and there will be more to come). Bookmark the link, if you dare (sick bag on standby).

So…are you doing anything special for Earth Day (April 22)? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one “pretty place”, best to my knowledge).

At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, here are my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. As long as you don’t print out a hardcopy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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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.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern is the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth). While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli:

 

’68 was ’68: 10 essential rock albums

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2018)

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For some reason, whenever someone refers to the 1960s as “a turbulent decade”, I always think of one year in particular. If I may co-opt the meteorological “F-Scale” as a metaphor, while most years of that decade were stormy, 1968 was the only one to hit F-5.

As Jon Meacham wrote in a Time article from January of this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

So obviously, I am not alone in this “F-5” assessment. In fact, you may have already had it up to “here” with the 50th anniversary retrospectives, and are rolling your eyes and considering bailing on this very piece (all I am saying, is-give my piece a chance…man).

No, I’ll leave historical perspective to the historians and humbly stay “in my place” as the (alleged) pop culture maven around these here parts. I’ll be keeping it real at 33 and a 3rd.

I’ll start at 45 RPM. If you were to use Billboard’s top 10 hits of 1968 as a barometer, you might not catch wind of that sociopolitical “turbulence”. Countin’ them down like Casey Kasem: #10 was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, #9 “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, #8 “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly” theme by Hugo Montenegro, #7 “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert, #6 “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, #5 “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals, #4 (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, #3 “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, #2 “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, and the #1 song of 1968 was (drum roll please) “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

So that is a fairly eclectic mix of soul, R&B, rock, easy listening and solid MOR on that list. With the exception of The Rascals’ plea for love ‘n’ peace and the droll social satire of “Mrs. Robinson”, nothing much deeper than I love you, I miss you, the sky is blue, so let’s tighten it up now. Then again, Top 40 radio has never been a gauge of who was bringing the message to the people…but rather who is taking the most money to the bank.

Meanwhile, in 1968 the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. And in the wake of the success of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (an album which notably yielded no singles) many artists were beginning to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a whole, with a unifying theme as its center.

This was moving too fast for AM radio, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad spot breaks (OK, “Hey Jude” was over 7 minutes-but The Beatles were the exception to many rules). Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in late 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by 1968, providing a perfect platform for “deep” album cuts.

But hey, (in the immortal words of Marty DiBirgi) enough of my yakkin’. Here are my picks for the top 10 rock albums of 1968 (listed alphabetically by LP title…not by rank).

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Astral Weeks – Van Morrison

From the late great Lester Bangs’ astounding 3700 word essay regarding this album:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

Erm, what Lester said about the dichotomy of good art. Indeed, gone was the Van who was “…making love in the green grass/behind the stadium” with his “Brown-Eyed Girl” a year earlier. In his second studio album, Van was evolving, eschewing pop formulas and dipping deep into that Celtic soul that would become his stock-in-trade on later LPs like Veedon Fleece. Choice cuts: “Astral Weeks”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Madame George”.

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The Beatles (White Album) – The Beatles

From its decidedly anti-commercial, minimalist cover art, to the sprawling, 30-song set within, the Fabs at once surpassed and deconstructed everything that had previously defined them musically with this double album. With the benefit of hindsight, you could say this was really 4 solo albums rolled into one, as many of the sessions were actually assembled sans a Beatle or two (or even three). There were even a few guest musicians brought in by individual band members to sweeten some of the tunes to their own liking.

The resultant juxtaposition of scattered eclecticism was almost scary. As groundbreaking as the previous year’s Sgt. Pepper may have been,  nothing prepared unsuspecting fans for the proto-thrash of “Helter Skelter”, the faux-country novelty of “Rocky Racoon”, the reggae/ska-flavor of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the absurdist “Wild Honey Pie”, the bluegrass-flavored “Don’t Pass Me By”, or the avant-garde mindfuck of “Revolution 9.”

Still, there are many diamonds in the rough; from rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Glass Onion” and “Birthday”, to beautiful ballads like “Cry Baby Cry”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, and “Long, Long, Long.” Other highlights include John’s “Dear Prudence” and George’s epic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

If you listen carefully, you can still glean direct influences from this album in modern rock. For example, I can hear future echoes of Kurt Cobain in Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Aside from the “loud soft loud” flux of the arrangement, note how John intones “Mother Superior jump the gun” until it almost becomes hypnotic; repeating a lyrical phrase was one of Cobain’s songwriting tics (“No I don’t have a gun…). Spooky!

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Beggar’s Banquet – The Rolling Stones

Released a month after the Beatles White Album hit record stores, this set demonstrated that the Stones’ half-hearted flirtation with psychedelia on the previous year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request had been just that…a flirtation (and frankly, a Sgt. Pepper knock-off).

However, any suspicions that the band had been floundering were quashed once the needle dropped on Side 1, Cut 1: “Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste…” With that meticulously constructed invocation known as “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Stones finally became “the Stones”. They had arrived, with a strong, distinctive set that includes the spunky, anthemic “Street Fighting Man”, hard rocking “Stray Cat Blues”, and a fair amount of rootsy, acoustic-based country blues like “Prodigal Son”, “No Expectations”, and “Salt of the Earth”. One of their finest efforts.

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Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel

Even Simon & Garfunkel took a cue from Sgt. Pepper, taking their stab at a “concept” album (a song cycle about birth/life/death) with this 1968 release. Clocking in at a breezy 30 minutes, this set contains some of Paul Simon’s most enduring compositions.

Interestingly, Simon was said to have been suffering from writer’s block at the time-but you wouldn’t know it, with the likes of “Save the Life of My Child”, “America” (his best road song), “Punky’s Dilemma”, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, “At the Zoo”, and of course the bonafide classic “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded in 1967 for The Graduate soundtrack).

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Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Double albums from rock bands were still considered a novelty in 1968; you could count all previous on one hand (namely, Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967), yet the year saw double-LP sets from two significant acts: The Beatles (see above) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was Jimi’s final studio album with the Experience; while it was his most commercially successful effort, it was also his most experimental.

It’s been said that Jimi drove band mates and studio engineers nuts with his perfectionism on this project, especially with endless lead vocal takes (he was famously insecure about his voice-and of course he needn’t have been, silly man!). A majority of the cuts could be classified as “psychedelic blues-rock”, yet there are interesting side trips along the course of its four sides.

“(Have You Ever Been) To Electric Ladyland” is a soulful, 2-minute Curtis Mayfield-style kick-off belying unexpected turns to follow, from the lead kazoo solo on “Crosstown Traffic”, a powerful 15-minute slow blues rendition of “Voodoo Chile”, the epic 13-minute psychedelic tone poem “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, the now-classic cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and of course, to the most scorching, heaviest “Hendrixian” song of them all, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.

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In Search of the Lost Chord – The Moody Blues

So how did the Moody Blues follow up their pioneering 1967 “symphonic rock” opus, Days of Future Passed? Well, they followed it up with an even more solid masterpiece. As the title implies, this is a concept album about quests; quests for knowledge, for meaning, for truth (you know-nothing too heavy). Just in case you don’t understand that you are embarking on a musical journey, the band opens the album with a song called (wait for it) “Departure”. And…you’re off (with or without chemical additives-your call). An outstanding LP, impeccably produced and sonically dynamic (headphones!). Choice cuts: “Ride My Seesaw”, “House of Four Doors”, “Legend of a Mind”, and “The Actor”.

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The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks

Ray Davies fully realized a perfect musical evocation of pure distilled “Englishness” with this album. It is a suite, of sorts, weaving a portrait of a sleepy English hamlet; replete with its local flavor, rendered chiefly via stories centering on its eccentric inhabitants. You can almost smell the tea and biscuits. Pete Townshend summed it up best when he said of this collection, “For me, Village Green Preservation Society was Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.” Amen. Choice cuts: “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Picture Book”, “Johnny Thunder”, “Village Green”, “Starstruck”, and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”.

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S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things

Contrary to popular belief, The Who’s Tommy was technically not the first “rock opera”, because the UK band The Pretty Things beat them by a year with this concept album. The band’s lead singer Phil May wrote a short story that eventually morphed into this project. Not unlike Howard the Duck, the angst-ridden protagonist here (a Sebastian F. Sorrow) is trapped in a world he never made. It’s actually a pretty gloomy tale (presaging Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but the music is excellent (the tunes stand on their own). Choice cuts: “S.F. Sorrow is Born”, “My Time”, “Private Sorrow”, “Trust”, and “Loneliest Person”.

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Waiting for the Sun – The Doors

After releasing a flawless debut (The Doors) and a more hit-and-miss sophomore effort (Strange Days) the previous year, the pressure was on for the Doors to prove they could deliver on that promise to “break on through to the other side”. And deliver they did. Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Kreiger and John Densmore stretched out a little more than previous on this release, which yielded a hit single (“Hello, I Love You”) gave birth to Morrison’s “lizard king” persona (“Not To Touch the Earth”) and put forth an ominous clarion call for revolution (“Five to One”). Other choice cuts: “Love Street”, “Summer’s Almost Gone”, “The Unknown Soldier”, “Spanish Caravan”, “Yes, the River Knows”.

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We’re only in it for the Money – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

Leave it to that sly musical provocateur Frank Zappa to gleefully mock the peace love and dope ethos of the “summer of love”, while his fans were essentially still in its thrall:

Walked past the wig store

Danced at the Fillmore

I’m completely stoned

I’m hippy and I’m trippy

I’m a gypsy on my own

I’ll stay a week and get the crabs

And take a bus back home

I’m really just a phony

But forgive me—‘cuz I’m stoned.

Importantly, that is what differentiates this album from the previous 9; while the lineage of nearly all can be traced in one way or the other back to Sgt. Pepper, Zappa is openly ridiculing the concept of Sgt. Pepper. This is a concept album expressly constructed to parody concept albums (while they were still in their infancy). I mean, who DOES that?!

Choice cuts: “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” (source of the excerpted lyrics), “Absolutely Free”, “Flower Punk”, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, and “The Idiot Bastard Son.”

Conviction of the heart: Outside In (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 7, 2018)

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There’s a timeworn josh betwixt residents of Western Washington that we’re all D-deficient. Speaking for myself, after 26 years in these parts, I think I’m growing moss on my north side, if you know what I’m saying. Still, while chronic light deprivation does have its downside, there’s something about the prickly-piney smell of perennially soaked, verdant evergreen forests swaying under drizzly, steely-grey skies that pulls me back in.

The moody atmospherics inherent in those verdant evergreen forests and drizzly, steely-grey skies has not been lost on certain filmmakers. David Lynch filmed most of the exteriors for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and both iterations of his Twin Peaks TV series in this neck of the woods. And of course, the wildly popular Twilight franchise has turned the previously sleepy town of Forks, Washington into a Mecca for its rabid fans.

t’s not just fancy-pants Hollywood types who have “discovered” the Pacific Northwest as a backdrop for their projects. For some filmmakers, it’s more like playing in the back yard. For example, take Ohio-born and Seattle-raised writer-director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) who has made 6 feature films since 2006, and had them all set in Western Washington. Her 7th and most recent effort, Outside In, is no exception.

The rain-washed, backwoods-y town of Granite Falls (population 3400) is a palpable character in this drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome; not to mention catching up with a world fraught with iPhones and laptops.

Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher. Not only did she visit him on a regular basis; tutoring him and helping him keep his spirits up, but advocated tirelessly to get him released. Once he’s out, it becomes obvious that Chris’ sense of gratitude has turned into something deeper.

Perhaps this was inevitable; the soft-spoken Chris is frozen at 18 years old emotionally and socially; he doesn’t feel that he has received much love and support from his dysfunctional family while he was locked up. On one level Carol is flattered, but as she is married and has a teenage daughter, her immediate instinct is to keep Chris at arm’s length. She is adamant that the two of them have always been, and must remain, “just” friends. Then again, there are hints that her marriage is troubled. Things get complicated.

Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco’s presence. She is such a great player; she says more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors could convey with a page of dialog (and I feel very strongly…strike that, I decree that she and Frances McDormand must do a film together at some point…someone simply must make this happen). Duplass (who co-scripted with the director) gives a sensitive and nuanced performance as well.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I think Shelton and Duplass (consciously or not) are paying homage to The Graduate. Not just the (virtual) age spread between Chris and Carol, but the interesting dynamic that develops between Chris and Carol’s daughter (a nice performance from Kaitlyn Dever). One short monolog in particular, in which Chris laments he’s tired of everyone telling him that he’s got a bright future and offering unsolicited advice about what he should do with his life, strongly recalls Benjamin Braddock’s angst. Also, not unlike the late great Mike Nichols, Shelton always finds the sweet spot between dramatic tension and wry levity. One of the best films so far this year.

 

Peace, love and AK-47s: Wild Wild Country (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 24, 2018)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

In my 2012 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I wrote:

What [Anderson] has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

You could say the same about the mind-blowing, binge-worthy Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which premiered March 16th. On one level, it is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant (take your choice) Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

Actually, the Bhagwan is dead, but his legacy lives on. The exact nature of that legacy, however, is still open to debate…depending on whom you talk to. Obviously, those who continue to buy his books (and related “Osho” merch like T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, etc.), attend seminars, join communes, and/or live by his philosophy and consider themselves “Rashneejees” tend to think and speak of him in nothing less than glowing terms. Others, not so much. Both “sides” are given a fairly even shake in the 6-part series.

In the early 80s, fed up with harassment from authorities in his native India (who were readying to drop the hammer on him on suspicions of smuggling and tax fraud), the Bhagwan closed his ashram and, like the persecuted Pilgrims before him, set sail (more likely, booked a flight) for the land of the free. Opting to resettle a bit farther West than Plymouth Rock, he scooped up 100 square miles of cheap range land adjacent to a sleepy cow town in Wasco County, Oregon. Eventually, a veritable New Age city was created.

Who, you may ask, would have a problem with this soft-spoken, beatific gentleman who encouraged people to let go of hang-ups, realize their full potential, be as spontaneous and joyous and free and giving and loving toward one another as humanly possible (i.e. fuck like bunnies) while insisting he himself not be deified in any way, shape, or form?

What do you mean, “What’s the catch?” Must there always be a catch? Why so cynical?

What tipped you off that something may have been amiss…was it his fleet of Rolls-Royces? Was it his affinity for collecting shiny things, like expensive watches and jewelry? Can he be faulted if (as he claimed) his admirers insisted on festooning him with baubles? Oh, I bet I know what it was…it was the henchmen, armed with AK-47s—right?

Here’s a refresher, from a 2017 revision of a piece published in The Oregonian in 2011:

The Rajneeshees had been making headlines in Oregon for four years. Thousands dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized a wispy-haired man who sat silent before them. They had taken over a worn-out cattle ranch to build a religious utopia. They formed a city, and took over another. They bought one Rolls-Royce after another for the guru — 93 in all.

Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways. Both sides stewed, often publicly, before matters escalated far beyond verbal taunts and nasty press releases.[…]

Hand-picked teams of Rajneeshees had executed the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history, poisoning at least 700 people. They ran the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever uncovered. And their immigration fraud to harbor foreigners remains unrivaled in scope. The revelations brought criminal charges, defections, global manhunts and prison time. […]

It’s long been known they had marked Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor for murder, but now it’s clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.

They contaminated salad bars at numerous restaurants, but The Oregonian’s examination reveals for the first time that they just as eagerly spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building, and a political rally.

To strike at government authority, Rajneeshee leaders considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles — 16 years before al-Qaida used planes as weapons.

And power struggles within Rajneeshee leadership spawned plans to murder even some of their own. The guru’s caretaker was to be killed in her bed, spared only by a simple mistake.

Strangely, most of these stunning crimes were in rebellion against that most mundane of government regulations, land-use law. The Rajneeshees turned the yawner of comprehensive plans into a page-turning thriller of brazen crimes.

Meditate on that (om, om, on the range). And that’s just the Cliff’s Notes version. This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up.

It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). Co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia.

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

Don’t stand so close to me: Submission (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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While it was likely in production before the “Me Too” movement took hold, writer-director Richard Levine’s Submission feels tailor-made for the current conversation regarding sex, power and patriarchy in the workplace; in this case, the world of academia.

Based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel “Blue Angel” (itself a modern re-imagining of the narrative driving the eponymous 1930 Josef von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings), Submission stars Stanley Tucci as Ted Swensen, a liberal arts college professor who teaches writing. A walking cliché, Ted is a blocked novelist whose one acclaimed work (a novel called “The Blue Angel”, surprise surprise) is long behind him.

As Woody Allen once said, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” And so Ted has resigned himself to a life of tenured security and quiet desperation. You could say the same about his marriage. He has a loving wife (Kyra Sedgewick), who empathizes with his droll assessments of dreaded soirées with his stuffy colleagues. Their marriage is cozy, if not remarkable; it’s comfortable, like a favored pair of worn slippers.

You’re beginning to wonder when that boulder is going to crash through the window to break up all of this monotony and knock the dust off Ted’s typewriter keys, aren’t you?

Her name is Angela (Addison Timlin), a new pupil in Ted’s class. At first appearing sullen and withdrawn, Angela’s demeanor noticeably brightens once she’s one-on-one with Ted after class. When she showers praise on “The Blue Angel”, Ted is flattered, but keeps his tone cautiously neutral as he agrees to read over the “first chapter” of her novel.

Ted’s skepticism vanishes as he realizes Angela’s writing is not only much better than he expected; it demonstrates a remarkably developed voice for a person of her age. He casually asks her if she has any more pages that he can look over, and critique. Of course she does. The hook is set. However, the question soon becomes: who is reeling in whom?

While we’ve seen this movie before (it’s a little bit Educating Rita, a bit more of All About Eve, and a whole lotta Election), it is bolstered by strong performances from Tucci and Timlin, as well as by the supporting cast. As I noted at the top of the review, I don’t think that this film was consciously intended as a nod to “woke” culture, but we’ll take it.

Having a wild weekend: Girls vs. Gangsters (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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As far as wacky adventure-comedies concerning young Chinese women having a wild and woolly bachelorette weekend in an exotic foreign city go, I suppose you could do worse than Barbara Wong’s Girls vs. Gangsters 2. Perhaps arguably, as hard as you try…you could only do marginally worse.

I’m sensing your biggest question (aside from “WTF is Mike Tyson doing in this film?”) is: “How in the wide world of sports did I manage to miss “Girls vs. Gangsters 1”? Tricky, that question. There is an explanation. There was a previous 2014 Hong Kong film called Girls, also directed by Ms. Wong (aka Zhenzhen Huang), featuring the same characters. I’m afraid that I also managed to miss that one, so don’t let that get you down.

So anyway, our fun-loving trio Hei Man, Kimmy, and Ka Nam (Ivy Chen, Fiona Sit and Ning Chang) have been BFFs since high school. One of them is set to tie the knot, so the girls decide to celebrate by taking up an invitation from a mutual friend who is currently working on a film in Vietnam to fly in and hang out for the weekend. It gets a little fuzzy from there. They visit a huge estate owned by a local gangster, engage in a drinking contest, and wake up the next morning on a beach, naked and chained to each other. Fun!

The remainder of the film (which grinds on and on…too lengthy at nearly 2 hours) has them attempting to retrace their steps, find the member of their party who is missing, and figure out why one of them has a tattoo of some random dude on her neck. If it’s starting to sound suspiciously like the Hangover franchise meets Bridesmaids, your suspicions are well-founded. And by the time the gals encounter Mike Tyson (living in a jungle compound), you may begin to suspect that someone slipped a mickey in your drink, too.

The locales are colorful, and the three leads bring a certain goofy, manic energy to the table, but the film is ultimately too over-the-top for its own good. Also, something may have been lost in translation, but employing a line like “You’ll be raped 100 times!” for comic intent is questionable in any modern comedy; much less one directed by a woman.

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.