Don’t nobody move: Top 15 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2021)

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There was a passing of note for true crime aficionados last week:

Robert “Bobby” Gentile, one of the last surviving named suspects in the infamous heist of 13 artworks valued at $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, died on Friday. He was 85 years old and had suffered a stroke, according to his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.

“He denied having the paintings till his death,” McGuigan told the Boston Globe. “They say he was a bad guy, but he became a friend. He was the last of his kind.”

The Gardner robbery took place in the early morning hours following Boston’s spirited St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers gained access to the museum thanks to a night security guard, tied up the two watchmen on duty, and spent the next two hours stealing masterpieces by artists including Rembrandt van RijnJohannes VermeerEdgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.

The works have been missing ever since, despite the offer of a $10 million reward.

Keep your eyes peeled at those estate sales. You never know.

I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked to learn there is a Netflix docuseries about the robbery, entitled (wait for it…) This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. I haven’t seen it yet (there are only so many hours in the day), but I have seen my share of heist films …so I thought I’d  break into my video vault and pull out a few favorites:

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.

To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.

The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).

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Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.

The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the  atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.

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Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, The Lineup, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, this tough and  gritty crime drama/character study from 1973 stars Walter Matthau as a master thief/ex- stunt pilot who gets into hot water when he unwittingly robs a bank that washes money for the mob. I think it’s one of his best performances.  If the cheeky dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man.

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Criss-Cross – Burt Lancaster stars in this 1949 noir by revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.). Lancaster is an armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her marriage to a local mobster (Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his reluctant involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously using the airport’s security lock down for the visit of a foreign dignitary as cover. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk rich women out of their savings.

Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. It’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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$ (Dollars) – In this 1971 film from writer-director Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty is a bank security expert who uses intel  from his sex worker girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch several safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank (the boxes belong to criminals). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.

What sets this apart from standard heist capers is a chase sequence that  seems to run through most of Germany and takes up 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great Quincy Jones score.

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Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it features the planning and execution of several heists and delivers exciting action sequences, at its heart it is a character study.

Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship between the cops and the robbers, but by drawing  parallels between the characters’ personal lives he illustrates  how at the end of the day, they basically seek the same things in life (they only differ in how they go about “getting” it). De Niro and Pacino only have one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.

The great supporting cast includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.

Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.

Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the  theme song, “Burning Bridges”.

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The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (also recommended!). Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. Also in the cast: scene-stealer Marie Windsor, who plays an entertainingly trashy femme fatale.

Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted for the screenplay (adapted from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Stories have circulated that Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing, when it was allegedly Thompson who contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other genre films of the era. Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative crime caper is cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Quentin Tarantino clearly “borrowed” from The Killing for his 1991 caper Reservoir Dogs).

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The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios  concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together is a beautiful thing.

William Rose scripted (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to helm one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957.

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Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and Billy Wilder is said to have made some non-credited contributions to the script.

To be sure, it’s a vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.

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That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.

Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmerz; this subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same principal cast would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.

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Topkapi– I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively lighthearted 1964 romp over his darker and more esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for this list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?

The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum.

There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery to drink in. Entertaining fare.

…And just for fun:

In tune with yourself: Fire Music (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2021)

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You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.

Cecil Taylor

The Oxford Dictionary defines “harmonious” thusly:

har·mo·ni·ous

/härˈmōnēəs/

adjective

tuneful; not discordant.

“harmonious music”

That sounds nice. So what is this “discordant” you speak of?

dis·cord·ant

/disˈkôrd(ə)nt/

adjective

1. disagreeing or incongruous.

2. (of sounds) harsh and jarring because of a lack of harmony.

Well, that sounds unpleasant. But here’s the funny thing about music. There may be rules defining what constitutes “harmony” …but there no rules defining what constitutes “music”. What’s “discordant” to you might be “harmonious” to my ears (and vice-versa).

In a piece I did in honor of International Jazz Day, I wrote:

Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving).

I was somewhat taken aback to learn the other day that that a scant 6 years before he recorded Bitches Brew, Miles Davis made this comment about pioneering “free jazz” multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (taken from a Down Beat interview published in 1964):

Nobody else could sound as bad as Eric Dolphy. Next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.”

Ouch.

That’s one of the tidbits I picked up from Fire Music, writer-director Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s.

Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, Surgal and co-writer John Northrup do yeoman’s work unraveling a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked this amazingly rich and creative period.

Mixing vintage performance clips, archival interviews, and present-day ruminations by veterans of the scene with a dusting of academic commentary, the filmmakers illustrate how it fell together somewhat organically, flourished briefly, then faded away (Lao Tzu’s oft quoted “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” comes to mind here).

After a nod to Be-bop, the film delves into the work of pioneers like saxophonist Ornette Coleman (his 1960 album Free Jazz gave the category-defying genre a handle) and pianist Cecil Taylor. While artists like Coleman, Taylor (and Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, et.al.) are now considered jazz greats, their boundary-pushing explorations were not universally embraced by critics (or audiences) at the time.

In fact, it wasn’t until saxophonist John Coltrane (“the most high and mighty” as one veteran player reverently intones in the film) released his 1966 album Ascension, that the movement received validation. Coltrane had been paying close attention to the revolutionary sounds coming out of the clubs, and Ascension indicated he had embraced the movement (although it certainly threw many of his fans for a loop).

As a musicologist points out in the film, it might have been easy for critics and the jazz establishment to look down their noses (or plug their ears) and dismiss players like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and their unconventional tonalities as amateurish noodling…but no one could say John Coltrane was an amateur (at least not with a straight face).

The film examines the regional scenes that sprang up, and (most fascinatingly) associated collectives that formed, like The Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and The Black Artist’s Group in St. Louis (this was “D.I.Y.” long before Punk). The European scene (primarily in the UK, Germany, and Holland) that was inspired by the American free jazz movement is also chronicled.

Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that essentially has erased the contributions of these artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.

Tears of a clown: Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)

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Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

― Lenny Bruce

Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.

I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.

In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.

It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.

This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.

As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”

Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

― George Carlin

Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.

The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:

I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!

Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!”  because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”

It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.

Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).

The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.

For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.

Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.

The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.

In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.

Good times.

On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?

The filmmakers include three key clips that encapsulate this spirit and the healing power of laughter: excerpts from David Letterman’s emotionally raw yet inspiring monologue for his first show following the attacks (September 17th, 2001), John Stewart’s equally heartfelt opener for his first post 9/11 episode of The Daily Show (September 20th, 2001), and the defiant, rousing return of Saturday Night Live on September 29th, 2001.

I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.

Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.

 

Happy Marxist Day: The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

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“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”

– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:

Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.

Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:

Oh, dear.

(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)

Is social justice the same as socialism?

Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”

Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.

Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.

Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle

So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?

Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?

In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:

…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.

Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.

However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).

In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).

Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.

You’ve worked hard, so here’s a holiday bonus…my Top 10 Labor Day movies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing us out, Billy Bragg…

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 school flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2021)

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It was the time of year just after the summer’s gone
When August and September just become memories of songs
To be put away with the summer clothes
And packed up in the attic for another year

-from “Indian Summer” by The Dream Academy

I know that this is silly (I’m 65 years old, fergawdsake)- but as soon as the last week of August rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I’ll have to go to bed early. By the way, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate, here are my Top 10 show-and-tell picks:

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The Blackboard Jungle– This 1955 social drama is the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) tackles an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents (or as they used to call them – “juvenile delinquents”) who would rather steal hubcaps and rumble than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

The film still retains considerable power, despite dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern.

Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by the nom de plume “Ed McBain”). Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is featured in the soundtrack, which helped make the song a huge hit.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess my attachment to writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1993 recreation of a mid-70s high school milieu is due to the sentimental chord it touches for me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music  (I’d wager the boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay focuses on keen observation. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt.

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Election– Writer-director Alexander Payne and his frequent creative collaborator Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995 debut Citizen Ruth with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory (thinly cloaked as a teen comedy). Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect as psychotically perky overachiever Tracy Flick, who specializes in goading her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

To Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, the ambitious Tracy is running unopposed for school president. He encourages dim but charming Paul Metzler (Payne discovery Chris Klein, who had never acted before) to cash in on his popularity as a jock and run against her. Payne delivers laughs, but never pulls his punches; he flings open the drapes to offer an unflinching look at suburban America’s  dark side (similar to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, released the same year).

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards. Oh…and a kid named Sean Penn, as the quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe managed to pass himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, this 2010 film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a young freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story lies in his past. The personal sacrifices he made for his ideals are revealed slowly; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch. Unique and inspiring.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think; Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy, That Sinking Feeling, Housekeeping) is a master of low-key anarchy. Those Scottish accents can make for tough going, but it’s worth the effort.

Also in the cast: Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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if…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut of Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of lads who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, one could argue that if…. could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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Mandy– England’s Ealing Studios are chiefly remembered for churning out a slew of classic comedies. Director Alexander Mackendrick was responsible for several  (including Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit), but also made this outstanding 1952 drama about a 7-year old girl (Mandy Miller).

Congenitally deaf since birth, Mandy has been coddled by her well-meaning parents (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) her whole life. While this has “protected” her in a fashion, it has also made her completely insular and socially dysfunctional. When Mandy’s mother hears about a school that specializes in teaching deaf children to speak using new progressive methods, she lobbies her skeptical husband to enroll their daughter. He reluctantly agrees. Mandy’s journey makes for an incredibly moving story.

Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham adapted the intelligent script from Hilda Lewis’ novel “The Day is Ours”. An added sense of realism stems from use of many non-actors; e.g. Mandy’s classmates, who were real-life students from a school for deaf children (Miller was not deaf, which makes her heart wrenching performance more remarkable; particularly in her unforgettable “breakthrough” scene).

The film had a profound impact in the U.K., changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities, who had been traditionally marginalized (if not shunned altogether or considered mentally deficient). Jack Hawkins gives one of his finest performances as Mandy’s teacher. A beautiful film.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier trades his switchblade for a lesson plan; the student becomes teacher. This well-acted 1967 classroom drama offered a twist on the prevalent narrative of its day. Audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; but here you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly, white British working-class students.

It’s a tour de force for James Clavell, who directed, wrote and produced. The “culture clash” narrative is not surprising; as it is prevalent in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a great “swinging 60s” time capsule, with an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, as well as an appearance by the Mindbenders (featuring future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also in the cast: Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance), Suzy Kendall, Christian Roberts, and future rock star Michael Des Barres (the lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).

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Twenty-Four Eyes– This drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. It’s a simple yet deeply resonant tale about the long-term relationship that develops between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”, giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later introduced it to Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiment.

…and to sing us out, The Dream Academy

Guest post: Charlie Watts…More with less

By Bob Bennett

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Charlie Watts has died.  A soft-spoken gentleman, Charlie would sign his notes with a parenthetical “(Rolling Stones)” after his name as if people might not place his name.

Let’s focus on his actual drumming.  He played on a small 4 piece 1956 Gretsch drum kit which was more of a be-bop configuration.  This minimalism seemed to fit his yeoman’s approach to his job as drummer, no doubt simplifying set-up, getting a consistent sound, facilitating upkeep and minimizing the bane of all drummers – transport.  He was not the kind of drummer to use a double-bass drum kit that would spin above the stage (Tommy, here’s lookin’ at you).  I would argue Charlie made more with less.

No, Charlie didn’t seek the spotlight, but his legacy of playing on every Rolling Stones song ever made easily cements him as one of the greats of all time.

First and foremost a jazz fan, Charlie had to be coaxed into joining a rock and roll band (apparently by Ray Davies of The Kinks no less).  His thundering performance on their early hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” showed no doubt that he could adapt.  Charlie could hit the drums hard, even though he used a traditional grip like jazz players do.

When he comes in with a *crack* near the beginning of “Start Me Up”, his heavy snare sounds like one of his disciples, Max Weinberg, who drummed in a similar way on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Getting that sound from a small kit is not only an engineering feat, it requires deep experience in where and how to hit the drums.  Charlie had it (as does Max!).

My friend, Dennis Hartley wrote a tribute to Charlie Watts, concluding he was the Rock of the Stones.  So true, and yet I think his brilliance also lay in his ability to Roll.  A perfectly on-time, metronome-like beat is lifeless (and easily obtained with a drum machine) but you cannot teach a person or a machine to play with the “feel” that Charlie brought.

Call it a slight swing or a shuffle, it can be heard on songs like “Midnight Rambler” where Charlie sometimes swings and sometimes plays with the expected “rock” back-beat.  “I like to play straight ahead with a groove,” Charlie once said in one of his rare interviews in reference to his playing on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Without Charlie adding that dash of sultriness, the Stones (including Mick’s swaggering hip shakes) would never have lasted as long as they have.

Charlie also had great dynamics and cymbal work.  He sometimes had a jerky look when playing the hi-hat and snare together as he preferred to alternate between them (most drummers will play consistent 1/8 or ¼ notes on the hi-hat and simply layer on the snare, typically on beats 2 and 4).  Maybe his habit of playing one or the other let him focus his intensity on one thing at a time.  It worked, and provided another organic layer to his playing that perfectly fit the sometimes raggedy sound of the guitars.

Charlie was good at letting songs breathe, never overplaying and sometimes sitting out on entire songs.  When the drums did come in, they often did with gusto as one can hear on innovative songs like “She’s a Rainbow” or “Ruby Tuesday”.  One of his most innovative performances was playing a tabla with sticks on “Factory Girl” (Ricky Dijon also played on conga).

Like the knowing scrape of a boot from a cool cat’s walk, Charlie’s drumming had a sexiness and a *crack!” which is to say he could rock and roll.

Charlie is our darling: A tribute

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 24, 2021)

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Well, it sucked to rub my sleepy eyes and see this circulating on social media today:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E9kgKKnXEAY64PX?format=jpg&name=mediumStalwart to the end, Charlie Watts was the “rock” in rock ‘n’ roll. Solid, reliable, resolute. He sat Sphinx-like behind his kit for over 50 years, laying down a steady beat while remaining seemingly impassive to all the madness and mayhem that came with the job of being a Rolling Stone. He was cool as a cucumber, as impeccably tailored and enigmatic as Reynolds Woodcock. “Reynolds Who?” As I wrote in my 2018 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread:

As I watched [Daniel] Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon.

He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?).

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I’m not suggesting Charlie was on the spectrum (not that there would be anything wrong with that), but the intense focus was visible; the genius evident. The fascinating thing about his drumming was that you couldn’t always “hear” it, but his contribution was just as essential to the Stones’ gestalt as Keith’s open ‘G’ riffs or Mick’s “rooster on acid” stagecraft. He wasn’t all about Baker flash, Bonzo bash or Moonie thrash…he was, as Liz Phair distilled it so beautifully today-a “master of elegant simplicity”.

Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by

Rest in rhythm, Mr. Watts.

(The following piece was originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club.

The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

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Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!).

In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

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Gimme Shelter – I sincerely hope that the Stones’ historic 2016 free concert at the Havana sports stadium went much smoother than their infamous 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show).

It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly “known” for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the incident, because those scant seconds of its running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the finest “rockumentaries” ever made. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

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Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in October of 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?).

At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned by cinematic glitz, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light downright unwatchable for me). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

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The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting.

Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous.

Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely embellishments from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

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Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have name-checked it over the years than as a true “classic”.

Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He inter-cuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man).

While I think we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.

War(s) on Terror: 20 years and 10 films later

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2021)

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Now a note to the President, and the Government, and the judges of this place
We’re still waitin’ for you to bring our troops home, clean up that mess you made
‘Cause it smells of blood and money across the Iraqi land
But its so easy here to blind us with your united we stand

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

With the 20th anniversary of September 11th looming amid the political fireworks surrounding America’s ongoing “final” troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more than enough analyses (scholarly or otherwise) regarding the whys and wherefores of America’s wars on terror to go around lately, so I won’t add to the din. Besides-that’s above my pay grade. I’m just “the movie guy” around these parts.

I was perusing my 15 years of reviews and was surprised at the number of documentaries and feature films related to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have covered. Collectively, these films not only paint a broad canvas of these endless wars themselves, but put the full spectrum of humanity on display, from “the better angels of our nature” to the absolute worst (mostly the worst).

So in lieu of a 3,000-word dissertation, I’ve culled 9 films from my archives that perhaps best represent what’s gone down “over there” (and on the home front) over the last 20 years since the World Trade Center towers fell, and one film that serves as a preface. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call this a “top 10” list, so let’s just call it, “food for thought”.

Pray for peace.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the snappy dialog for director Mike Nichols’ political satire. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? While a (mostly) true story, it plays like a fairy tale now; although in view of recent events we know the Afghan people didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. (Full review)

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Fair Game – Doug Liman’s slightly uneven 2010 dramatization of the “Plame affair” and the part it played in the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco may hold more relevance now, with the benefit of hindsight. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two memoirs, The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the opening scenes, which give the impression you may be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be speculative in nature. Due to the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

However, the most important part of the couple’s story was the political fallout that transpired once Valerie was “outed” by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Liman wisely shifts the focus to depicting how Wilson and Plame weathered this storm together, and ultimately stood up to the Bush-Cheney juggernaut of “alternative facts” that helped sell the American public on Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full review)

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The Kill Team – In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. For as long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. (Full review)

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The Messenger – I think this is the film that comes closest to getting the harrowing national nightmare of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “right”. Infused with sharp writing, smart direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that sneaks up and really gets inside you, haunting you long after the credits roll.

First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson are outstanding. I think this film is to the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire what The Deer Hunter was to Vietnam. It’s that good…and just as devastating. (Full review)

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Son of Babylon – This heartbreaking Iraqi drama from 2010 is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – I once saw a fascinating TV documentary called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook (discovered decades after the war) that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in this documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us? A disturbing, yet compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review)

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Stop/Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio.

A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran. Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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W – No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once you watch his 2008 take on the life and times of George W. Bush (uncannily played by Josh Brolin), I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the end of his second term.

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He caught some flak for dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some took umbrage at another one of the underlying themes in Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me. (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

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Zero Dark Thirty – “Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

But that’s just me. Perhaps the film is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release back in 2013 would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice I said “nearly”. But if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting. The best I can do is arm you with those caveats; so you will have to judge for yourself. (Full review)

…and one more thing

2 weeks ago I posted a review of Mariam Ghani’s new documentary What We Left Unfinished, which takes a rare look at the Afghan film industry, and how a group of filmmakers kept it flourishing during Afghanistan’s Communist era (1978 to 1991). Earlier this week, it was announced that tickets purchased via Dekanalog Eventive will go to the Emergency Funds For Afghan Artists Go Fund Me organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. You will find more detailed information and latest updates here.

Indiana wants me: Whelm (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 14, 2021)

“My only request is that you pay mind to the details of my story, with hope we see eye-to-eye at the end,” writes the protagonist/narrator in the opening of Skyler Lawson’s Whelm. As I learned the hard way (that is, having watched it in a somewhat distracted frame of mind in my first go-around), it would behoove the viewer to heed the writer’s advisement, so as not to be left feeling blindsided or bewildered by the epilogue.

That is not to say the narrative is willfully obscure; at its core it’s no more densely plotted than your standard-issue 90-minute crime caper. It’s just that (and I know this will be an instant turn-off for some) it has been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a 2-hour ah…visual tone poem. In other words-patience, Grasshopper.

Not that that is a bad thing in this handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. Writer-director Lawson’s debut feature evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, the story centers on two estranged brothers: our narrator Reed (Dylan Grunn) and his older sibling August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. The brothers help their father run an inn that has seen better days.

Like most people of the time, the brothers are bereft of funds and always looking to scare up extra coin. This leads them to fall in with a pair of extralegal characters-a suave, charismatic but decidedly felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). What ensues is equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy (in 13 “chapters”).

For an indie project that was shot in just 2 weeks, the film has an astonishingly epic feel, which portends a big future for Lawson. Lawson also co-composed the dynamic original score (with Chris Dudley). He is helped by a great ensemble (all previously unknown to me). Baran makes fascinating choices as Aleksy- I think he will be someone to keep an eye on as well.

If you’re hankering for a film with (as Stanley Kubrick once described his approach) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks” and hearkens back to something we old folks used to refer to as “cinema”-this is about as good as it gets in the Summer of 2021.

WHELM is on digital platforms and in select theaters as a 35mm roadshow event.

Life through a lens: What We Left Unfinished (**½) & Whirlybird (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2021)

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Considering recent developments in Afghanistan, the release of Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished may prove to be timelier than the director intended. Her film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Kabul-based Afghan film industry, and how it fared during the multi-regime Communist era (from 1978 to 1991).

While it may seem counter-intuitive to consider a 13 year-long period of Communist rule as “the good old days”, the filmmakers who are profiled here view it as a golden age (of sorts)…especially relative to the subsequent years of Taliban rule from 1992 to 2001.

If there was an “up” side to the implementation of the Soviet model during that period, it was state funding of movies. Of course there was a substantial “down” side for filmmakers, in that they did not get final cut…every master print was subject to approval (read: butchering) by government censors before distribution.  Those willing to put up with caveats found they had an otherwise surprising amount of resources at their disposal.

Ghani uses restored footage from five unfinished projects to give a sampling of the types of films that were produced during that period. For the most part, they are standard melodramas; and while they contain elements reflecting Afghanistan’s historical turbulence and nods to Communist doctrine, none of them struck me as overtly political.

Ghani enlists writers, actors, producers and directors to reflect on how they finagled to keep the film industry alive during this period, despite the frequent regime changes (sometimes governmental shifts would occur mid-production, which could get awkward).

Some of the filmmakers’ stories are pretty wild. One recalls staging a battle scene in the desert wherein they had to use real bullets (the army provided them with weapons for the film, but didn’t have any blanks). When he called “cut”, he heard additional gunfire and quickly realized that actors and crew were being shot at by a small band of mujahedin, who had been drawn by the sound of their gunfire. They were eventually able to escape.

If you’re looking for the big picture-at 70 minutes Ghani’s film cannot convey the full complexity of Afghan art and politics; but as film preservation it has historical value. It’s not for all tastes, but I think diehard fans of international cinema should find it intriguing.

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide.

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I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour”. A great Sunday night show for the whole family.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Talk about helicopter parenting. Matt Yoda’s documentary Whirlybird is one of those “only in L.A.” stories; specifically the story of the Tur family…broadcast reporter Zoe (formerly Bob), her ex-wife/long-time professional colleague Marika Gerrard, and their two children James and Katy.

It’s tough to pigeonhole a film that runs the gamut from shocking footage of the 1992 L.A. riots and the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase to home movies of a happy mom-to-be carrying future NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. The best I can do for you is “Keeping up with the Kardashians meets Broadcast News.”

Although the “action news” format was established in the 70s, one can credit (or blame) news stringer/helicopter pilot Bob Tur (who transitioned to Zoe in 2014) and then-wife and camera operator Marika Gerrard with popularizing the sensationalist, God’s-eye iteration of “breaking news”…reporting from high aloft the murder and mayhem below.

Tur founded the independent Los Angeles News Service in the 80s, initially running his own camera in addition to doing the reporting. As Marika recalls, it wasn’t too long after she and Tur began courting that he encouraged her to learn how to shoot news footage. More often than not, “date nights” ended up with her tagging along with him to a crime scene, fire, or a car crash anyway, so Marika figured out early on that if she wanted time with Bob, her best bet was to take him up on his offer to be a professional partner as well.

Even once the couple began to build their family, the police scanner remained the soundtrack of their lives. Zoe recalls “driving 110 miles an hour” to get the jump on a breaking story…with her wife and kids in the car.

If that sounds like reckless behavior, Zoe would agree with you. While sheepish about speaking of herself in the third person, she now realizes “Bob” had an overabundance of testosterone. Bob also had anger management issues, as evidenced in outtakes of him berating both Marika and helicopter pilot Lawrence Welk III (I was reminded of the 2010 documentary Winnebago Man).

Nonetheless, the reportage that Tur and Gerrard did over the years adds up to an extraordinary documentation of key historical events in Los Angeles from the late 1980s through the late 1990s “as they happened” (e.g. that is Bob Tur’s voice you hear accompanying that horrific, now-iconic footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten nearly to his death on live television).

The director was given access to the couple’s archive of several thousand Beta tapes. As he plowed through the library, Yoda noticed that there was quite a bit of family footage mixed in among the plane crashes, riots, and police pursuits (Bob and Marika used the work camera for their home movies).

The couple’s marriage ended in 2003; Yoda interweaves family footage with career highlights to create a dual chronology of a city descending into chaos and a relationship becoming increasingly untenable. It’s not necessarily “a great Sunday night show for the whole family”…but it’s an absorbing watch and one of the top docs I have seen this year.

WHIRLYBIRD is streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and other platforms.