Just drifting: R.I.P. Buck Henry

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2020)

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Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?

Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.

Mr. Braddock: Why?

Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.

Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?

Benjamin: No.

Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Benjamin: You got me.

– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast.  He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).

Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.

For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria, Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).

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Candy As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.

What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.

Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.

Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.

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Catch-22

Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.

Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.

Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet…Buck Henry did a pretty good job of condensing it into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a great director (Mike Nichols) and such a fabulous cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50-year-old film has improved with age.

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Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).

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The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.

Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).

This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).

Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

Note: Kermet Apio is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with in my stand-up days.  Not unlike foreign correspondents, road comics get a firsthand take as to what’s happening “on the ground” anywhere their job takes them. Kermet shared some thoughts regarding the current situation between the U.S. and Iran in a Facebook post today. With his permission, I am re-publishing it here. -Dennis Hartley

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I have been incredibly lucky to have performed in the Middle East twice in the last few years. Travel cuts through all the media sound bites. When you spend time with people and learn about their culture, their history, their foods, and their joys, THEY become your definition of that country. You shake your head at the propaganda because you saw with your own eyes human beings who were kind, funny, welcoming, and love their families and friends.

Bombs don’t fall on a map. They fall on people. For one brief moment I ask you to look beyond the justifications and the talking points. Think about those that will lose their lives and those that will survive with the pain of loss.

I relate more to the everyday people I’ve met around the world than the people running my country right now. The war mongers and profiteers don’t want you to see people, they want you to see darkness. I am hoping we see people and light because that is what’s really there.

Burning with optimism’s flames: A New Year’s mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2019)

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Charles Pierce wrote a great Esquire piece today about the difficulty of holding on to optimism as we head into a new year during trying times. He says: “Optimism is not exactly something that’s just lying around on the floor, waiting to be picked up. It’s something we have to work for again. It’s a heavy lift, but a necessary one. All we have as we enter 2020 is, well, us.” He’s right…it’s up to us to keep the fire burning. Chin-chin.

Tired of Guy Lombardo? Here are 10 more alternate tunes to ring in the new year…

  1. “Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

2. “1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

3. “1921” – The Who – I always listen to this first thing when I wake up New Year’s Day. Somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather

4.  “Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

5.  “New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” Fabulous live version, with The Edge pulling double duty on keys.

6.  “Celtic New Year” – Van Morrison – Speaking of Ireland: Van the Man! If I don’t see you through the week, see you through the window…

7. “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

8. “Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer guitar solo by Elliot Randall.

9. “New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

10. “Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

Happy New Year!

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2019

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 28, 2019)

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As the year closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2019. Per usual I present them alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77-year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

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

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who co-scripted Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic) the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety. While it doesn’t tell the complete story, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.  (Full review)

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Driveways – There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.

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The Edge of Democracy– Latin American countries have a long history as ever-simmering cauldrons of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something even more insidious at play in her country these days than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of her predecessor, the wildly popular progressive reformer Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

The real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during these events. This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; “we” have more in common with Brazil than you might think.  (Full review)

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The Irishman – If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so funny. “Funny” how? It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything.

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

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MonosLord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).   (Full review)

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Putin’s Witnesses – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he “campaigns” for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history.  (Full review)

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This is Not Berlin Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

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Wild Rose – It’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. I loved the cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

Blu-ray reissue: The Woman in the Window (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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The Woman in the Window – Eureka (Region “B” locked)

Director Fritz Lang was one of the key progenitors of film noir, with entries like The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear, Human Desire, Clash by Night, The Blue Gardenia, While the City Sleeps, and this suspenseful 1944 drama.

Edward G. Robinson stars as a buttoned-down professor who becomes intrigued by a painting of a young woman that hangs in a shop near a men’s club that he frequents. One night, he’s drinking in the view, and guess whose reflection suddenly appears in the window, standing behind him?Sexy Joan Bennett plays the woman, who (in classic femme fatale fashion) enmeshes the mild-mannered sap in a web of murder and blackmail. Noir stalwart Dan Duryea is (as always) a great heavy.

Eureka’s edition features a 1080p presentation on a dual-layer disc; while it doesn’t look to be restored, it is a noticeable upgrade over the DVD. Extras include a commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, as well as written and video essays by others.

Blu-ray reissue: Until the End of the World (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Until the End of the World – The Criterion Collection

Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic is finally available as a beautifully restored transfer by Criterion, in a 287-minute director’s cut (which Wenders himself has called his “ultimate road movie”).

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

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

The 4K digital restoration is gorgeous, and a new 5.1 surround HD DTS audio track accentuates the film’s excellent music soundtrack (which includes songs by U2, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, et.al.). Extras include a conversation between Wenders and David Byrne and several film critic essays.

Blu-ray reissue: A Touch of Class (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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A Touch of Class  – Warner Archives

One of my favorite romantic comedies finally gets a Blu-ray upgrade, courtesy of Warner Archives. Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) the 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. George Segal and Glenda Jackson star as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

Warner continues their tradition of being stingy with extras, but the 1080p transfer, taken from a new 2K scan, delivers the highest-quality image I’ve seen of this entertaining film.

Blu-ray reissue: Slaughterhouse-Five (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Slaughterhouse-Five  – Arrow Films

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

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

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

Arrow’s 4K restoration is superb. Critic Troy Howarth contributes one of the more entertaining commentary tracks I’ve heard in a while. Extras include new interviews with Perry King (who played Billy Pilgrim’s son) and film music historian Daniel Schweiger.

Blu-ray reissue: Rock and Roll High School (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Rock and Roll High School – Shout! Factory

In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.)

Shout Factory’s 40th anniversary edition features a new 4K scan; image is gorgeous and the colors really pop. Sound quality is a slight disappointment; it’s certainly not “bad”, but not as much of an improvement over previous Blu-ray and DVD versions as I had hoped for (especially for a film with such a great music soundtrack). Generous extras include a new 70 minute feature about the production of the film. Fans should be pleased.

Blu-ray reissue: The Reckless Moment (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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The Reckless Moment – Indicator

Max Ophul’s 1949 film noir stars Joan Bennett as an overly-protective mother who gets sucked into a maelstrom of blackmail and deceit as she tries to cover up her teenage daughter’s accidental killing of her shady middle-aged lover. Adding to Joan’s headache is the appearance of a mysterious stranger (James Mason) who threatens to spill the beans on her daughter’s affair with the recently deceased gentleman (who Mason confirms did have criminal ties). Can Joan tidy this mess before her husband returns from his overseas business trip?

Despite standard noir trappings, the story sustains an interesting moral ambiguity, with subtle shifts in character motivations (your assessment of who the “villain” is may vacillate throughout the piece).

Indicator is a UK-based outfit that puts out mostly Region “B” locked discs, but I’ve noticed on occasion they put out titles that are all-region-luckily, this is the case with The Reckless Moment (i.e., it is compatible with North American Blu-ray players). Extras include a 44-minute featurette on Max Ophul’s career by artist and author Lutz Bacher.