Goin’ Mobile: Top 10 Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2020)

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Traditionally, Memorial Day Weekend triggers thoughts about upcoming summer getaways and/or road trips. After 2 months (and counting) of hunkering down in quarantine mode, most people are raring to go…anywhere really, beyond their neighborhood. A road trip to the county line would feel like a grand adventure at this point (“If I take one more step Mr. Frodo, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve been since March 11th!”). But pragmatism reminds us that a pandemic doesn’t take a breather on holidays, nor care a whit about summer vacations:

For the first time in 20 years, AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. The annual forecast – which estimates the number of people traveling over the holiday weekend – will return next year.

Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season.

“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend – the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”

Memorial Day 2009 currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers, according to AAA. That holiday weekend, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other forms of transportation (train, cruise, etc.).

AAA expects to make travel projections for the late summer and fall, assuming states ease travel restrictions and businesses reopen. Already, there are indications that Americans’ wanderlust is inspiring them to plan future vacations.

So hey-buck up, little camper…you can still take a (virtual) road trip this Memorial Day weekend with one or more of my picks for the Top 10 Road Movies:

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Five Easy Pieces (Amazon Prime Video) — “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s.

Nicholson portrays an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who nonetheless prefers to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs.

Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. And don’t forget where to hold the chicken salad…

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Genevieve (Amazon Prime Video) — A marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle 1953 film centers on the travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.

Colorful, droll, and engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s onscreen chemistry. Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

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Lost in America (Amazon Prime Video) — Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed.

Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch yet so painfully funny (I consider him the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).

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Motorama (Amazon Prime Video) — This darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey nearly defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.

As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock: The Movie.

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Powwow Highway (Criterion Channel) — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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Radio On (BFI Player) — You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

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

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Kings of the Road (Amazon Prime Video) — Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon  a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have lots of screen time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it though-I think you will find it rewarding.

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Sullivan’s Travels (Amazon Prime Video) — A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm.

Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).

He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Trip (Amazon Prime Video) — Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.

The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.

This setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. The director and both stars reunited for two equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017).

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Vanishing Point (DVD or Blu-ray only) — I don’t know if there was a sudden spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the, erm, challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.

Not much of a plot but nonetheless riveting. Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who pulls double duty as Kowalski’s guardian angel and a Greek Chorus for the narrative. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.

Bonus miles! 10 recommended side trips…

 

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

Buffalo ’66 (Amazon Prime Video, tubi)

Harry and Tonto (Currently unavailable; occasional cable airings)

Il Sorpasso (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

Midnight Run (Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, iTunes)

Road to Utopia (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

Scarecrow (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

Sideways (Amazon Prime Video, Starz VOD, Hulu, iTunes)

The Straight Story (Amazon Prime Video, Disney VOD, iTunes)

Two-Lane Blacktop (DVD and Blu-ray only)

Don’t Pray on Me: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2020)

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In my 2008 review of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I wrote:

Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.

Gabita is pregnant and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children.  He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married. […]

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not exactly be a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.

The journey undertaken by the two young women is harrowing. But that film was set in 1980s Romania, under an oppressive dictatorship. Surely, a young woman in 2020 America who finds herself in Gabita’s predicament wouldn’t face those challenges, right? I mean, come on. “…a cautionary tale”?! Perhaps I was being a tad hyperbolic. Or was I?

[From an April 13, 2020 AP story]

The coronavirus outbreak has fueled attempts to ban abortions in some states, but providers where the procedure remains available report increased demand, often from women distraught over economic stress and health concerns linked to the pandemic.

“The calls we’ve been getting are frantic,” said Julie Burkhart, who manages clinics in Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City. “We’ve seen more women coming sooner than they would have because they’re scared they won’t be able to access the services later.”

Some clinics are seeing patients who traveled hundreds of miles from states such as Texas, which has banned abortions during much of the pandemic on grounds they are nonessential.

Dr. Allison Cowett of Family Planning Associates in Chicago said one recent patient was a teen who drove from Texas with her mother. In Atlanta, Dr. Marissa Lapedis said her clinic accommodated a woman who received her initial abortion consultation in Texas but flew to Georgia when the Texas ban postponed a second visit to receive the abortion pill. […]

Another concern is that abortion bans will force some women into continuing with high-risk pregnancies.

“Without services, very sick babies will be born and families forced to watch them suffer who would, in other times, have made a different decision,” said Dr. Maryl Sackeim, a Chicago-based OB-GYN. […]

Amid debate about whether abortion is an essential service, anti-abortion protesters have mobilized outside numerous clinics — in some cases triggering confrontations with police over whether they’re violating social-distancing rules. In North Carolina, eight of about 50 protesters were arrested April 4 after refusing to disperse outside a clinic in Charlotte.

Even as many businesses close temporarily, anti-abortion pregnancy centers remain open. Virginia-based Care Net, which oversees about 1,100 centers, evoked the pandemic in a fundraising appeal, noting that unplanned pregnancies may rise during isolation and “our centers need to find creative ways to serve these parents and empower them to choose life.”

While it was not her master plan, the timing for the release of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (which premiered this week on V.O.D.) could not have been more apt. Hittman’s indie drama was originally slated for a theatrical opening in March, but was thwarted by its proximity to quarantine closures.

Like the protagonist in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; in this case it is her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder).

They both work part-time as grocery clerks in a rural Pennsylvania burg. While Skylar is friendly and engaging, Autumn is sullen and introspective. In fact, our first glimpse of Autumn finds her singing an emo folk-style cover of an early 60s girl group tune at a school talent show (if you pay close attention, the lyrics will take on deeper significance as the film unfolds). Her performance is interrupted by a slut-shaming catcall from a yahoo in the audience. Undaunted, she picks up where she left off and finishes to a smattering of polite applause.

There appears to be a dearth of support at home too; her stepfather (who looks and acts like one of those belligerents who gets wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in any given episode of Cops) has to be brow-beaten by his wife into paying Autumn a compliment for her performance. Although it is never directly addressed, there is also an unsettling tension between Autumn and her stepfather that implies there could be some history of abuse.

Soon after, Autumn visits her local “crisis pregnancy center” to confirm what she suspects. The woman helping her is pleasant enough but obviously not a licensed medical professional. Autumn is handed an over-the-counter test kit and asked to self-administer. She is told that she is likely at 10 weeks. When Autumn fails to sing hallelujah and break into a happy dance, the woman makes a sort of duck face and nonchalantly asks her if she “has a minute” to watch something. Cue one of those horror show-styled Pro-Life videos.

Two things become clear. Firstly, Autumn does not wish to go full term (in a difficult-to-watch scene, she does a Google search on self-induced abortion and attempts a few methods that come to naught). And since she lives in a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided, she needs to quickly brainstorm a much safer way to take care of her situation while keeping it on the down-low from her parents.

Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds (seeded by an impulsive re-appropriation by Skylar while doing her end-of-shift cash drawer balance at the supermarket), surreptitiously pack overnight bags and head for the bus station. Destination: NYC (I half-expected them to sit across the aisle from Joe Buck, to the strains of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking”).

Along the way, they get chatted up by a gabby oddball named Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, who you may recognize from Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida). Autumn does not engage, but Skylar ends up giving him her cell number (probably just to shut him up) and giving him a politely non-committal answer to his offer to take them clubbing once they hit the city (dweeby Jasper is the only sympathetic male character in the film).

The Midnight Cowboy vibe kicks in again as soon as Autumn and Skylar disembark at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are not in Kansas anymore (well, technically rural Pennsylvania). Autumn does find her way to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she is chagrined to learn that she is in fact in her second trimester (at 18 weeks, instead of 10 weeks as she was led to believe by the woman at her hometown pregnancy crisis center).

She is assured that if she still wishes to follow through with the abortion, they can facilitate. However, due to her status it requires a two-day outpatient procedure for maximum safety. As Autumn and Skylar did not budget for an overnight stay in prohibitively expensive Manhattan, the remainder of the film becomes an episodic ride-along as the pair find various creative ways to kill time between Autumn’s two medical procedures.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Flanigan especially shines in the film’s pivotal and most emotionally wrenching scene, which takes place at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. Autumn is asked a series of questions by one of the staff that are designed to determine the client’s current state of mind, and to find out if she is living in an unsafe situation (e.g., sexual and/or domestic abuse). Autumn is assured there are no right or wrong answers; only “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.”

Interestingly, the character of Autumn reminded me of the eponymous protagonist in writer-director Barbra Loden’s groundbreaking 1970 character study/road movie Wanda (I suspect the film was an influence on Hittman). While Autumn is a 17 year-old high school student and Wanda a 30-something housewife, both characters have a strange, Sphinx-like passivity. Both women live in dreary, conservative working-class towns in rural Pennsylvania. Both are treated like shit by most of the males they encounter, yet are able to remain impervious and even above it all; as if they exist on their own transcendent astral plane. Their inscrutability could be read as a sort of feminist statement…albeit from an odd, counter-intuitive place. Just a thought.

This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be. It is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.

Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. And despite what portions of my review may have led you to think, she does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate.

Or does she? Perhaps the film is a Rorschach test; it is your decision to make. As it should be.

Same as it ever was: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2020)

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“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

― from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

And thus spoke “Arthur Jensen”, CEO of fictional media conglomerate “CCA” in what is for me the most defining scene in director Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 satire. Jensen (wonderfully played by Ned Beatty) is calling “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a President of the United States who is Tweeting and making public statements in TV interviews and press conferences (in a very “mad prophet of the airwaves” manner) that suggest he feels it’s more important right now in the midst of a still-raging pandemic to get everyone back to work than to save their lives. Because the economy. And per usual, Wall Street watches, waits and yawns while it gets a manicure.

You would almost think “someone” has handed the President a set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (akin to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). Or, at the very least-he opines from the perspective of someone borne of privilege and inherited wealth?

So how did the world become “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

It’s not like “the people” haven’t tried through history to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Take, for example the French Revolution, which ultimately did not change the status quo, despite the initial “victory” of the citizenry over the power-hoarding aristocracy. As pointed out in Justin Pemberton’s documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while there was initial optimism in the wake of the revolution that French society would default to an egalitarian model, it never really took.

Why? Because the architects of the revolution overlooked what is really needed to establish and maintain true equality: strong political institutions, an education system, health care (*sigh*), a transport system, and a tax system that targets the highest incomes.

Same as it ever was.

That, and financial inequality in general are the central themes in Pemberton’s ever-so-timely film, which is based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty.

Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. Focusing mostly on the last 200 years or so, it connects the dots between significant events like the aforementioned French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (which greatly expanded the boundaries of “capital” while driving an even deeper wedge between workers and factory owners), New World expansion (which spawned the slave trade), and the labor movements of the late 19th-to-early 20th Centuries.

While a lot of the historical review is disheartening, it is not all gloom and doom and “the system is rigged”. The film reminds us that there have been periods where egalitarian ideals have taken hold (the Roaring Twenties, FDR’s New Deal, the post-war rise of the middle-class). That said-1% of the world’s population still owns 70% of the land in 2020.

Will there ever come a time when economic equality “takes” for good? Maybe when an asteroid strikes the Earth and puts us all back on equal footing? My personal cynicism aside, Piketty and his fellow commentators do toss out possible scenarios that give you some hope; but frankly they all seem to be predicated on a wee bit of magical thinking.

Naturally, I was being facetious in the previous paragraph when I mentioned an asteroid striking the Earth. But history does indicate it takes some form of Great Equalizer to precipitate a shakeup in the status quo. As pointed out in the film, war is one example (WW 1 begat the Roaring Twenties, WW 2 begat the rise of the middle class, etc.). What about this pandemic? A killer virus doesn’t care whether you’re wearing a Bud-stained T-shirt or a Brioni suit; it’s just looking for the nearest warm body to attach itself to.

As the film was produced before Covid-19 shut down much of the world’s economy, it does not delve into the possibilities of a post-pandemic restructuring. As luck would have it though, a fitting postscript for my review presented itself the day after I screened the film when Thomas Piketty popped up as a guest on The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. Curiously, he was not there to promote the documentary, but did share some interesting thoughts on possible post-pandemic shifts in current economic models:

[Piketty] I think this is one of these crises we see that can really change people’s views about the world and how we should organize the economy. What we see at this stage is a big increase in inequality. […]

With this crisis right now, I think people are going to be asking for proof that we can also use this power of money creation and the Federal Reserve in order to invest in people; investing in hospitals, in public infrastructure, increasing wages for unskilled workers…all the low-wage and middle-wage people which we see today are necessary for our existence and our society.

In the longer run, of course we cannot just pay for everything with public debt and money creation…so we have to re-balance our tax system. […]

In the past three decades in America, we’ve seen a lot more billionaires; but we’ve seen a lot less growth. So in the end, the idea that you get prosperity out of inequality just didn’t work out. […]

[Noah] What do you think about the “worst case scenario”, then…if you live in a world where the inequality just keeps growing; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, what do we inevitably get to?

[Piketty] Well to me the worst scenario is that some skilled politicians like Donald Trump, or [President of the National Front Party] Marie Le Pen in my country in France will use the frustration coming from wage and income stagnation and rising inequality in order to point out some foreign workers or “some people” [are] to blame. […] And this is what really worries me-that if we don’t change our discourses, if we don’t come up with another economic model that is more equitable, more sustainable…then, in effect we re-open the door for all this nationalist discourse.

Trevor had to go there with the “worst case scenario”. But that does not mean that is where we must end up. I am not an economic expert, nor pretend to have the answers to such questions. However, one quote from the film stuck with me: “This logic of one dollar, one vote is completely opposed to the democratic logic of one person, one vote.” I am not taking that one to the bank; I’ll be taking that one to the polls with me on November 3rd-with fingers crossed.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is streaming through May 14 via Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema website . Proceeds are split to help support the theater during its current closure.

 

Five O’clock World: Working Man (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 2, 2020)

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“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.”

― Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

We live in interesting times. This past May Day marked a particularly “interesting” confluence of traditional historical commemoration with a cold and harsh “new reality”.

[from The Intercept]

An unprecedented coalition of workers from some of America’s largest companies will strike on [May 1]. Workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx are slated to walk out on work, citing what they say is their employers’ record profits at the expense of workers’ health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The employees will call out sick or walk off the job during their lunch break, according to a press release set to be published by organizers on Wednesday. In some locations, rank-and-file union members will join workers outside their warehouses and storefronts to support the demonstrations.

“We are acting in conjunction with workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart and other companies for International Worker’s Day to show solidarity with other essential workers in our struggle for better protections and benefits in the pandemic,” said Daniel Steinbrook, a Whole Foods employee and strike organizer. […]

“These workers have been exploited so shamelessly for so long by these companies while performing incredibly important but largely invisible labor,” said Stephen Brier, a labor historian and professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “All of a sudden, they’re deemed essential workers in a pandemic, giving them tremendous leverage and power if they organize collectively.”

And these are the folks who are “lucky” enough to still have a job during this unprecedented (albeit necessary) national lock-down. There are tens of millions of Americans who have been laid off or furloughed over the past 2 months currently wondering where they are going find the money to pay their rent, much less buy necessities and cover all their monthly bills.

“Insecurity cuts deeper and extends more widely than bare unemployment. Fear of loss of work, dread of the oncoming of old age, create anxiety and eat into self-respect in a way that impairs personal dignity.”

― John Dewey

Even during “normal” times, losing a job can be traumatic; especially for career employees in traditional blue-collar manufacturing jobs who get blindsided by unexpected factory shutdowns. Such is the lot of the Every Man protagonist in writer-director Robert Jury’s drama, Working Man (available on VOD beginning May 5).

His name is Allery Parkes (Peter Gerety, who you may recognize from HBO’s The Wire, as well as his more recent roles in Showtime’s Ray Donovan and City on a Hill). Allery has been working at the same factory most of his adult life, living quietly with his devoted wife Iola (Talia Shire) in a small (unidentified) rust belt town (maybe in Illinois).

As the film opens, Allery wearily un-crumples himself from his bed in the manner that weary elderly folks do. He goes through his morning ablutions, slaps together a Braunschweiger sandwich on white bread (no condiments), nods goodbye to his wife and dutifully sets off on his morning walk to work, armed with his thermos and his lunch pail.

Not unlike Allery himself, who not so much walks as waddles due to his time-worn hips, this is a town obviously on its last legs. Abandoned buildings abound, many adorned with “for lease by owner” signs. Allery works at a factory that manufactures plastic…widgets?

Whatever Allery and his co-workers are manufacturing, they will not be doing so much longer…the factory is closing, and this is to be their last shift. In fact, they are instructed to knock off early, line up for final paychecks, then sent off on their (not so) merry way. However, Allery is determined to finish out his full shift, to the chagrin of his supervisor-who nonetheless understands the gesture and lets Allery exit the stage with dignity intact.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that while the factory has shut down, Allery is not ready to rest on his laurels. One day (to the puzzlement and concern of his wife and neighbors) Allery sets off as he has for decades, thermos and lunch pail in hand.

What’s he up to? As this was the last operating factory in town…where is Allery headed?

For that matter, with 90 minutes more to fill-where is this story headed? I’m not telling.

The film meanders at times, but not fatally. There are shades of Gung Ho and The Full Monty (without dancing). Still, Jury’s film holds its own, thanks to strong and believable performances from Gerety, Shire and Billy Brown, and is nicely shot by DP Piero Basso.

The film’s uncanny timeliness gives it an additional shot in the arm. And for those who may currently find themselves in a situation like Allery’s, the film itself may deliver a shot in the arm that they could use right about now; perhaps a glimmer of hope that all is not lost, that this too shall soon pass …or at the very least, an affirmation of the dignity of work.

I’m Not There: Notes from Tribeca 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 25, 2020)

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Like other film festivals that have had to cancel their “real world” event due to the pandemic, Tribeca is keeping the spirit and mission of their programming alive by devising inventive “virtual” solutions for carrying on. They are offering quarantined film fans access to select programming curated for online viewing through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca has also provided accredited press access to some of this year’s festival selections. I’m happy to report I was granted access, so I’m sharing some festival highlights with you…even though I’m not really “there” (and frankly I haven’t been “all there” for years anyway…but longtime readers already know that). Hopefully, these films will be coming soon to a theater (or streaming platform) near you!

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Ainu Mosir (***) – This drama from writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga offers a rare glimpse into Japan’s Ainu culture (historically marginalized, the Ainu people were not officially acknowledged as “indigenous” by that country’s government until it passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution in 2008 that also urged an end to discrimination against the group).

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives with his mother in an Ainu village with a tourist-based economy. Kanto’s mother encourages him to take counsel from a long-time friend of his late father who strongly believes in passing on the cultural traditions of the Ainu to its young people. When the family friend invites the teen to join him in clandestine preparations for a sacrificial ceremony certain to stir up discord within the community, Kanto must navigate a way to embrace his heritage and honor his father’s memory while reconciling with modern mores. Sensitively directed and acted.

Related reviews: Birds of Passage, Angry Inuk, Tibet in Song

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Banksy Most Wanted (**½)– Almost everybody knows what internationally celebrated guerilla street artist Banksy does, but despite years of investigative journalism, amateur-to-professional sleuthing and “outings”…nobody but he/she/themselves knows who the real McCoy(s) is/are. Co-directors Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley give it a whirl in their slickly made but ultimately frustrating documentary. Promising leads are followed, but no Big Reveals. The best parts of this globe-trotting quest are the glimpses at Banksy’s brilliant work, which continues to defy logic as to how he/she/they manage to pull it off while cunningly remaining hidden in plain sight. To be fair, the directors had a tough act to follow: Banksy’s own meta-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).

Related reviews: Art and Craft, My Kid Could Paint That

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Call Your Mother (**½)– Why are some people inherently “funny”? Funny, as in-other people will pay to watch them crack wise in front of a brick wall? Where does a “sense of humor” come from…nature or nurture? In this breezy (if lightweight) documentary, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady suggest it is …your mom. And they mean that in a nice way-as demonstrated by comics Louie Anderson, Tig Notaro, Kristen Schaal, Bobby Lee, Judy Gold, David Spade, Rachel Feinstein, et.al. who share anecdotes about (in some cases, camera time with) their moms. Initially fun and even endearing, but ultimately eschews any real insight for seeking 50 ways to say “My mom is such a card!”

Related reviews: When Comedy Went to School, Can We Take a Joke?

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Love Spreads (***½) – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.

“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto. Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs (in the power-pop vein).

Related reviews: Love and Mercy, The Runaways, Tokyo Pop, God Help the Girl, We Are the Best, The Gits, Top 11 Rock Musicals

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Pacified (***½) – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil provide a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama. Sort of a cross between The King of New York and City of God, the story takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The narrative centers on the relationship between 13-year old Tati (Cassia Gil), her single (and drug-addicted) mother Andrea (Débora Nascimento), and Jaca (Bukassa Kabengele), the former “godfather” of the neighborhood who has just been released from prison. Jaca, who has mellowed while in the joint, is nonetheless chagrined to learn that the young protégé he left in charge has essentially declared himself boss, become a neighborhood terror and now views Jaca as a threat to his regime. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians.

Related reviews: The Edge of Democracy

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P.S. Burn This Letter Please (***) – Can we dish? I admit that going into this documentary, what I knew about the history of the 50’s drag scene in New York City wouldn’t have filled a flea’s codpiece. But some 100-odd minutes and several fabulously accessorized costume changes later…my codpiece was full. That did not come out sounding right. Suffice it to say Michael Seilgman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s Ken Burns-style documentary is an eye-opener. Inspired by a box of letters found in an abandoned storage unit, the film is an intimate history of a unique art form that managed to persevere and thrive during an era not too long ago when the LGBTQ community was relentlessly persecuted and forced to live in the shadows.

Related reviews: Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Stonewall Uprising

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (***) – This glossy portrait of Ronnie Wood from Eagle Rock Films looks back on the venerable British rocker’s career and catches up with his current life and interests. Viable and animated as ever, the seemingly indestructible Wood sits down with director Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday, The Browning Version, Leaving Las Vegas) and chats about everything from his 45 years with the Stones, early days with his first band The Birds, his creative association with Rod Stewart (in both the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces) to his “second career” as an artist and his longtime struggle with drugs and drink.

The amiable Wood is quite the raconteur and comes off as a fun bloke to hang out with. I would have loved more footage of the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces, but that is a personal problem. Also, on hand: Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Wood’s wife Sally. This film is catnip for classic rock aficionados.

Related reviews: Too Rolling Stoned: A Top 5 List, Muscle Shoals, David Crosby: Remember My Name, Gimme Danger

For more info check out the Tribeca Film Festival website.

The Virtual International Film Festival: Week 2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 18, 2020)

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Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

I’ve covered the Seattle International Film Festival for Hullabaloo since 2006. Over that 14 year period I’ve reviewed over 200 SIFF films. So I thought I’d comb my archives and curate a “Best of SIFF” festival that doesn’t require leaving the safety of your abode.

So welcome to Week 2 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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

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

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

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

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

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Endless Poetry (Amazon Prime Video) – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?”, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope.

Endless Poetry, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself. (Full review)

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Home Care (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes) – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak.

An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) are an endearing screen couple. The stories we’ve been hearing about the selflessness of health care workers who are on the front lines of the current Covid-19 pandemic adds a new level of poignancy to Horak’s film. (Full review)

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Mekko (Amazon Prime Video) – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world. (Full review)

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

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

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

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

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (iTunes) – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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This May Be the Last Time (Amazon Prime Video) –Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

This is two films in one; both family memoir and academic study. Harjo investigates a story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inspires the second layer of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, Harjo traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey. (Full review)

…one more thing

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Good news-You can catch first-run indie films from home… via SIFF’s virtual cinema:

Due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding COVID-19, our Cinemas are temporarily closed and the 46th annual Seattle International Film Festival has been canceled. SIFF will be on hiatus for the next few months while a small team takes care of SIFF’s assets and plans for the eventual reopening of SIFF.

In the meantime, we’re pleased to be working with distributors to bring you virtual screenings of new independent films. Stay home, stay healthy, and support SIFF with Virtual SIFF Cinema!

On each film detail page, you’ll find a link to the distributor’s screening portal where you’ll be able to rent the film and begin watching. As part of the revenue goes directly back to SIFF, this is a great way to support us during this time and see new films!

…and this just in!

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Another cancelled 2020 film festival that has devised “virtual” solutions for carrying on is Tribeca. While the physical event has been scrapped (for obvious reasons), the organizers are keeping the spirit and mission of the annual event alive by offering film fans worldwide access to select programming specially curated for online viewing, from April 17 through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

Want to dive in now? A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away is a fun place to start!

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca is also providing accredited press access to some of this year’s selections (features and shorts). I’m happy to report I have been granted access, so starting next Saturday, I’ll be sharing some reviews of new films to keep an eye out for in the near future. In the meantime, check out the Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.

Virtual International Film Festival: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

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

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and film festivals are right out.

Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

No worries. I’ve been covering the annual Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the 14 years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. So I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a sort of Best of the Festival Festival (since the acronym for that is BOFF-for the sake of decorum, I felt I ought not to use it as a header).

So welcome to Week 1 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Telstar (YouTube, iTunes) – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time).

The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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

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

…one more thing

In case you are still bereft of ideas for movie night, film programmer and writer Kathleen Geier has posted a comprehensive guide aimed at housebound cinephiles jonesing for a deep catalog dive via online streaming. Her eclectic recommendations run the gamut, from classic Hollywood to indie, art house and world cinema.

Book of Saturday: A chillaxing mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 4, 2020)

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You’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? Here’s one you can add to the list: Maxell UD XL-II 90 cassettes. I was going through some musty boxes the other day and found a stash of mixtapes that I’ve had since the 70s and 80s. I’ll be damned if they didn’t sound just as good as the day I recorded them (My theory is that they are manufactured from the same material they use for “black boxes”).

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I was into putting together “theme sets” long before I got into the radio biz. My mixtapes were popular with my friends; I’d make copies on demand. I would name my mixtapes. One of my favorites was “The Oh My God I am So Stoned Tape”. I don’t believe that requires explanation; I mean, it was the 70s and I was a long-haired stoner music geek.

(Photo restoration by Kenneth Tiven)

45 years later, I’m still putting together theme sets. It is my métier. It’s kind of sad, actually (grown man and all). Anyway …turn off the news, turn down the lights, do some deep breathing, and let “The Oh My God I am So Stoned Tape 2020 Redux” wash your pandemic anxiety away. I’ve sequenced the songs in a manner designed to evoke and sustain a particular mood-so for maximum effect, may I suggest that you listen to it in order. Enjoy!*

*Herbal enhancement optional

King Crimson – “Book Of Saturday”

Weekend – “A View From Her Room”

Mark-Almond Band – “The City”

Budgie – “Slip Away”

Robin Trower – “Bluebird”

Robert Fripp (f/Daryl Hall) – North Star

Jimi Hendrix – “May This Be Love”

Be-Bop Deluxe – “Crying To The Sky”

Ambrosia – “Nice, Nice, Very Nice”

Heartsfield – “Magic Mood”

kd Lang – “Outside Myself”

Glen Campbell – “Wichita Lineman”

Terry & the Lovemen (aka XTC) – “The Good Things”

Buggles – “Astro Boy (And The Proles On Parade)”

Japan – “Taking Islands In Africa”

Aswad – “Back To Africa”

Laura Nyro – “Smile” / “Mars”

Todd Rundgren – “Boat On The Charles”

The Beach Boys – “Surf’s Up”

Kate Bush – “The Morning Fog”

Jade Warrior – “English Morning”

The Who – “Sunrise”

It’s a Beautiful Day – “White Bird”

Circus Maximus – “Wind” 

King Crimson – “Peace: An End”

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2020)

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I’m not really a sports guy-but from I understand, this past Thursday would have been Opening Day for America’s favorite pastime:

(from The Washington Post)

By midmorning Thursday, a few hours before first pitch, they would be firing up the fryers and grills and popcorn poppers, filling the air with the unmistakable smell of ballpark food. The marquee out front would have the words we have been waiting all winter to read: “OPENING DAY — TODAY.” You would walk through the tunnel into the bowl of the stadium to be greeted by the sunshine and the expanse of green and the red, white and blue bunting draped over the upper-deck railings.

Fifteen North American cities were set to hold Opening Day on Thursday, with the first games at 1:10 p.m. Eastern time. […] Instead, those 15 stadiums — and the 15 of the visiting teams whose home openers would come later — will be dark Thursday and for many weeks to come. The novel coronavirus pandemic brought the baseball season to a stop before it could even start, and if there is to be an Opening Day at all in 2020, no one can say for certain when it will be.

“It’s going to be weird knowing that we’re not playing,” said Baltimore Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde, whose team was supposed to host the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Thursday afternoon. “But there are a lot bigger things than Opening Day right now and a lot bigger things going on in the world.”

Yes, things are definitely a little…weird right now. One of the most FAQs floating around on social media (aside from “How long am I being restricted to quarters?!”) is “So what should I watch?” The good news is…with all the entertainment platforms available in 2020, there’s a glut of “stuff” to watch.

That doesn’t guarantee that it’s all watchable; I understand the need to separate the wheat from the chaff. You don’t want to invest unrecoverable hours of your life watching what turns out to be a lemon (unless, say, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys are there to turn it into lemonade). So for the time being, I’ll be combing my archives every Saturday night to bring you the erm…wheat.

With that in mind-while you might not be able to “walk through the tunnel into the bowl of the stadium to be greeted by the sunshine and the expanse of green and the red, white and blue bunting draped over the upper-deck railings”, you can enjoy a reasonable facsimile thereof on your home screen by giving one of these sports-related gems a spin.

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Bend it Like Beckham Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s an insightful coming of age tale and a rumination on small town life.

Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham – Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

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Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding as the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. Ritchie’s film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski).

Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Granted, it’s a bit of a downer, but still worth your time. Beautifully acted and masterfully directed, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family; which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics.

Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than you’d expect. A winner.

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North Dallas Forty – Nick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later on in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic and empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deliver fearless performances. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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Slapshot – Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this puckish satire (sorry), directed by George Roy Hill. In a desperate play to save the team, Newman decides to pull out all the stops and play dirty.

The entire ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease bit in film history and the endearingly sociopathic “Hanson Brothers” are a hoot.

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This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young, Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.

Extra innings!

We could be benched for a while. Here are 10 more personal recommendations:

Any Given Sunday

Bang the Drum Slowly

Cool Runnings

Field of Dreams

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Natural

Raging Bull

Rocky

When We Were Kings

Guest review: Call of the Wild (***)

By Bob Bennett

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Summary: An enjoyable film that skips the intensity of the original Jack London tale for an endearing “man loves dog” theme with surprisingly good special effects. Haters are gonna hate but this movie punches above its weight and makes you ponder what “civilized” really means.

** Possible light spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the source novel**

I am an unlikely admirer of Chris Sanders’ new family-friendly fantasy adventure Call of the Wild. I have never liked the perennially grumpy Harrison Ford, was convinced that using a CGI dog would be a travesty and was primed for disappointment as an amateur Klondike gold rush historian (I lead tours in Seattle on the gold rush).  And so, it was a surprise when I was genuinely touched by this movie that somehow punched above its weight.

The movie is the tenth film adaptation of Jack London’s original novel, The Call of the Wild, which was an instant success when released in 1903.  The book, authored by one of the first hardy souls to travel over the Chilkoot Pass when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, was unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of nature.

Essentially the book is about how easily the thin veneer of society can be stripped away to reveal a harsh world where man and dog fight to survive through tooth and claw.  Frankly, in 2020 the book is a tough read; think angry Darwinism focused on inherent violence.

This version (adapted from London’s novel by Michael Green) is very Disney-esque, meaning that the movie is suitable for kids but still has enough going on for adults to be entertained.  Violent parts of the book are softened, non-PC portions are left behind (there are many) and new story elements have been added to heighten appeal.

Like the book, the movie presents human feelings through the experiences of a dog without going all in for anthropomorphism (the animals do not talk for example).  The book was always a work of fiction and the movie borders on fantasy.

Buck, a large city dog who is kidnapped and sold into the violent sled dog trade, is the main character.  As a stylized CGI dog, Buck has a commanding personality with just enough visual fidelity to let you regard him as real and with few distracting details.  Buck’s leaps and bounds are incredibly life-like due to use of motion capture sequences of a real dog and his facial expressions are very realistic – and I say that as someone who owns two large canines.

The other dogs in the movie and the wolves are well portrayed – such is the control that CGI gives the director.  One has to wonder if this type of lush storytelling will color our common perception of nature, since there is less and less “real nature.”  As another plus, the filming had a very low footprint on the real environment.  Still, if you can’t get over the CGI, you will not like the movie (in case you were wondering, all the human characters are portrayed by real actors).

The protagonist is a grizzled and despondent prospector, John Thornton, who is played by the well cast Harrison Ford.  John rescues Buck from a cruel and clueless owner (a city slicker of course) and bonds with him.  Ford struggles with old age, regrets and alcoholism – great family fare right?

There are three phases in the narrative.  The first covers Buck’s kidnapping from his plush city life and his baptism into the cruel world of men the dogs they enslave in pursuit of money.  The second features Buck development as a leader of his own pack of dogs.  The final chapter is Buck and John’s Homeric journey into the wilderness which is essentially a quest for deliverance from the evils of man.

The movie was shot partially on green screen, partially on location in California and features gorgeous background plates shot in the Yukon.  Somehow it mostly all works except for a bizarre scene where a pheasant is flushed (a few thousand miles North of their real habitat).

A high point is an incredible dog team action scene with Buck having earned his place as lead dog.  Buck takes his humans for the ride of their life and saves them from a huge avalanche (which was not in the book).

The movie is ultimately a lead up to Buck gradually integrating with a pack of wolves (who are incredibly lifelike).  The conflicting pull that Buck feels for John and the call of the wild by his new pack is the central theme of the story and is beautifully rendered on screen.

“Call of the WIld” is available for home viewing on pay-per-view (Disney)