Tribeca 2021: See For Me (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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This tight thriller starts out like another entry in the “blind woman in peril” genre (Wait Until Dark, See No Evil, Blink, etc.) but takes a few unexpected twists and turns. Directed by Randall Okita and written by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue, the story concerns a stubbornly independent, blind ex-skier (Skyler Davenport) who takes a cat-sitting job at an isolated mansion. And as we all know, nothing good ever happens at an isolated mansion.

Without giving too much away, suffice to say that there is a home invasion, and complications ensue. The young woman deals with her situation armed with a cell phone, her wits, and a young army vet/ace gamer (Jessica Parker Kennedy) who works for a blind assistance hotline. While not 100% original, it keeps you guessing right up to the very end.

Tribeca 2021: Poser (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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All About Eve for millennials. Co-directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s dark satire centers on an Ohio-based emo chick named erm…“Lennon” (Aujolie Baker) with vague aspirations to become a songwriter who (when not working at her dreary dishwasher gig) buzzes around the fringes of the Columbus underground scene, ostensibly to do “research” for her podcast (that may or may not have followers).

Sullen and deadpan, it’s no wonder that Lennon doesn’t have any friends. However, once she ingratiates herself with a darling of the local indie music scene (Bobbi Kitten) she begins to emerge from her shell…in a rather discomfiting way. What ensues is a cross between the (far superior) underground scene satire The Last Big Thing and Single White Female.

Tribeca 2021: Not Going Quietly (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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You may not recognize Ady Barkan by name, but you may remember a chance encounter he had on a plane with then U.S. Senator Jeff Flake in 2017 that went viral. Barkan (diagnosed with ALS in 2016 at age 32) confronted Flake on an impending Congressional vote on a tax cut that would have negative residual effects on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs that people with disabilities rely upon for health care assistance.

Nicholas Bruckman’s “warts and all” documentary charts how Barkin continues to use his skills as a longtime activist to spearhead a national campaign for healthcare reform, despite the progression of his disease. Don’t pity him-he doesn’t want it. You’ll pity yourself for not being out there making a difference like this amazing person.

Tribeca 2021: Last Meal (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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There is a very clever bait-and-switch in this 18-minute short. The bait is food porn…the camera lingers over glossy, hyper-stylized, TV ad-ready close-ups of mouth-watering cheeseburgers, fries, steaks, pizzas, tacos, etc. as the narrator rattles off itemized “last meal” requests by death row inmates (some more notorious than others). But faster than you can say “Where’s the beef?” you find yourself steeping in the gruesomeness of it all. Co-writer/directors Marcus McKenzie and Daniel Pricipe literally and figuratively give you food for thought regarding the ethics of capital punishment.

Tribeca 2021: The Last Film Show (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies.

Tribeca 2021: Kubrick by Kubrick (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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For those unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at the director’s catalog (13 movies over a 46-year span) might prompt head-scratching as to all the fuss concerning his impact on the medium. But great artists are defined by the quality, not the quantity of their work. Kubrick was notoriously averse to granting interviews, so it has been largely left up to film scholars to mull over the ultimate “meaning” of 2001: a Space Odyssey or Eyes Wide Shut.

Writer-director Gregory Monro had access to rare audio-only interviews Kubrick granted to French film critic Michael Ciment over a 10-year period. He cleverly incorporates Kubrickian visual language, rounded off by archival interviews with creative collaborators. Not a definitive portrait of the artist, but likely the closest we will ever get to Kubrick “in his own words”.

Tribeca 2021: 9/11: One Day in America (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Tribeca is premiering this 72-minute pilot episode of an upcoming 6-part National Geographic Channel series. There have been quite a few documentaries recounting the horrors and heroics of that day, but I think this is the most affecting one I’ve seen to date. Much of the footage may be all-too-familiar, but director Daniel Bogado’s compelling, minute-by-minute network narrative-style reconstruction gives equal import to intimate testimonies of survivors and the broader historical context.

Nomadland: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2021)

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Writers spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.

Consequently, films about writers and/or writing can be a tough row to hoe (how do you parlay the seed of inspiration blooming in a writer’s mind into a visual?). Consider Caroline Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, of which I had no idea was a semi-autobiographical story about the germination of a writer until a screen crawl at the end informed me so.

The writer in question is Judith Kerr (who passed away at 95 in 2019, just months before the film premiered in Germany). I was an avid reader as a kid, but somehow missed Ms. Kerr’s trilogy of children’s books “Out of the Hitler Time”. First published in 1971, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” was volume one of that series (as I have come to learn).

This family-friendly drama (adapted from Kerr’s novel by Link with Anna Brüggemann) centers on 9-year-old Anna Kemper (Riva Krymalowski), who lives with her parents and her older brother Max (Marinus Hohman) in late Weimer Germany. Her mother (Carla Juri) is a classical pianist, and her father (Oliver Mascucci) is a high-profile theater critic.

As this is Berlin in 1933, the elephant in the room is one Adolph Hitler, who is on the verge of dominating the imminent election. And as the Kempers are Jewish, this is not the ideal time for them to be in Berlin. While the Nazis have yet to “officially” seize control, Anna’s dad has been an outspoken critic of Hitler for a spell and awaits the election results with consternation. Informed that he’s on the Nazis’ “list”, he takes a trip to Prague, instructing his family to meet up with him in Switzerland should Hitler prevail.

When Hitler prevails, the family must pack quickly and skedaddle. They also must pack light, forcing Anna to make a difficult choice to leave her beloved stuffed pink rabbit behind, under the watchful eye of the family’s devoted housekeeper (Ursula Werner). Soon after the family reunites in Switzerland, Anna learns that the Nazis have not only absconded with Pink Rabbit, but all the Kemper’s possessions (and burned Dad’s books).

Despite the country’s alleged neutrality, things get a little hot in Switzerland after a few months and the family moves to Paris. When word reaches the Kempers that the Nazis have put a price on dad’s head, they eventually have to flee France to merry old England.

The initial scenes of the family hiking through lush Swiss Alpine scenery suggests you may have been roped into an unofficial remake of The Sound of Music, but ultimately When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is better viewed as The Diary of Anne Frank with a less heartbreaking postscript. I don’t intend that as a glib observation; after all, the wartime experiences of young “Anna” mirror those of Kerr herself…this is her life story.

The film is not really “about” Hitler, the Nazis, or even WW2. Rather, it is about the resilience of children, and the power of a child’s imagination. Through Anna’s eyes (helped immensely by young Krymalowski’s wonderful performance) I found myself transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. It’s that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).

Certain elements of Anna’s story resonated with me in a personal way (aside from the fact that she and I both had a Jewish mother). I think it’s because I grew up as a military brat. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

One way I coped with the constant uprooting was to retreat into my rather vivid imagination. I remember creating comic books (mostly involving adventures in outer space) featuring characters named after friends I met along the way. I also wrote short stories for my own amusement. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but was triggered by watching Anna noodle caricatures and such throughout the film (Judith Kerr also did the illustrations for her books).

Nazi Germany is something we can only hope never again occurs in any way, shape, or form. There are myriad films you can watch if you wish to steep in the utter horror of it all. But even during wartime, life goes on. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is best likened to the selective recollections of a carefree childhood: no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

(“When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” is currently streaming via SIFF Channel)

Soldier’s things: a Memorial Day mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2021)

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Memorial Day, like war itself, stirs up conflicting emotions. First and foremost, grief…for those who have been taken away (and for loved ones left behind). But there’s also anger…raging at the stupidity of a species that has been hell-bent on self destruction since Day 1.

And so the songs I’ve curated for this playlist run that gamut; from honoring the fallen and offering comfort to the grieving, to questioning those in power who start wars and ship off the sons and daughters of others to finish them, to righteous railing at the utter fucking madness of it all, and sentiments falling somewhere in between.

The Doors- “The Unknown Soldier” – A eulogy; then…a wish.

Pete Seeger- “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” An excellent question. You may not like the answer. When will we ever learn?

Tom Waits- “Soldier’s Things” – Behold the power of a simple inventory. Kleenex on standby.

Bob Marley- “War”– Lyrics by Haile Selassie I. But you knew that.

The Isley Brothers- “Harvest for the World”Dress me up for battle, when all I want is peace/Those of us who pay the price, come home with the least.

Buffy Sainte Marie- “Universal Soldier”– Sacrifice has no borders.

Bob Dylan- “With God On Our Side” – Amen, and pass the ammunition.

John Prine- “Sam Stone” – An ode to the walking wounded.

Joshua James- “Crash This Train” – Just make it stop. Please.

Kate Bush- “Army Dreamers”– For loved ones left behind…

Posts with related themes:

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

The Kill Team

The Messenger

Tangerines

The Monuments Men

Inglourious Basterds

Five Graves to Cairo

King of Hearts

The Wind Rises & Generation War

City of Life and Death

Le Grande Illusion

Paths of Glory

Apocalypse Now

 

 

Long strange trip: 10 Offbeat Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2021)

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

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

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

With the summer travel season looming and increasing numbers of people receiving COVID vaccinations, I’m noticing more chatter about “things opening up” for aspiring vacationers:

European Union countries agreed on Wednesday to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions on non-EU visitors ahead of the summer tourist season, a move that could open the bloc’s door to all Britons and to vaccinated Americans.

Ambassadors from the 27 EU countries approved a European Commission proposal from May 3 to loosen the criteria to determine “safe” countries and to let in fully vaccinated tourists from elsewhere, EU sources said.

They are expected to set a new list this week or early next week. Based on data from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Britain and a number of other countries would meet the new criteria.

The United States would not, although Americans with proof of vaccination would be welcomed.

(via Reuters)

So we’re not quite there yet for carefree international travel. Buck up, little camper…on the domestic front, the AAA appears to be more optimistic than they were this time last year:

AAA Travel expects a significant rebound in the number of Americans planning to travel this Memorial Day holiday weekend. From May 27 through May 31, more than 37 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60% from last year when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000.

The expected strong increase in demand from last year’s holiday, which fell during the early phase of the pandemic, still represents 13%—or nearly 6 million—fewer travelers than in 2019. AAA urges those who choose to travel this year to exercise caution and take measures to protect themselves and others as the pandemic continues.

“As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and consumer confidence grows, Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions.” […]

Another factor contributing to the expected increase in travel this holiday is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recently updated guidance that fully vaccinated people can travel domestically at low risk to themselves, while taking proper precautions. It’s important to keep in mind that some local and state travel restrictions may still remain in place, however.

(via AAA website)

Speaking for myself, Mr. Frodo… if I take one more step beyond the grocery store, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been since last March. Being cautiously optimistic by nature, I’ll be sticking with the “stay-cation” for this upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

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

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

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

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

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

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