Blu-ray reissue: He Walked By Night (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2024)

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He Walked By Night (KL Studio Classics)

This tight 1948 police procedural from Alfred L. Werker (with  uncredited co-direction by noir stalwart Anthony Mann) was based on a case taken directly from the LAPD’s files. Richard Basehart stars as a psychopathic serial thief-turned cop killer who utilizes his expertise with electronics to repeatedly elude capture by law enforcement.

One of the earliest noirs to take a semi-documentary approach in order to inject an air of realism to the story.  Jack Webb (who plays the police department’s electronics expert in the film) was obviously taking notes, as that became the model for his future Dragnet TV series.

It’s also one of the first crime thrillers I’m aware of that plays to the gear heads in the audience; there’s lots of demonstrative tinkering with (then) state of the art electronic equipment (I see it as presaging The Conversation in this regard).

While the story is absorbing, the real star of this film is its cinematographer, the great John Alton. There are a number of stunning visual set pieces; particularly a climactic pursuit through L.A.’s underground tunnel system (it’s worth noting that this film was released a year before The Third Man).

Alton’s photography really pops in Kino Lorber’s absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, which is taken from a 16bit 4K scan of the 35mm fine grain. Extras include a new commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and audio commentary by author/film historian Alan K. Rode and writer/film historian Julie Kirgo. This one is a must-have for noir aficionados.

Blu-ray reissue: Gothic (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2024)

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Gothic (BFI; Region ‘B’ locked)

OK, full disclosure. In my 2012 review of Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, I wrote:

[Keyhole is} Reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic, another metaphorical long day’s journey into night via the labyrinth of an old dark house. And, like Russell’s film, Maddin’s is visually intoxicating, but ultimately undermined by an overdose of art house pretension and self-indulgent excess.

One might read that and glean that I was underwhelmed by Ken Russell’s 1987 drama. At the time, perhaps I was. But I reserve the right to occasionally change my appraisal of a film…especially when it comes to certain filmmakers like, well, Ken Russell for instance (David Lynch comes to mind as well). Sometimes, you are not in the “right” receptive mood for a  specific filmmaker’s uh, aesthetic. Upon a repeat viewing or two, some films will sort of…grow on you.

At any rate, this “metaphorical long day’s journey into night via the labyrinth of an old dark house” has grown on me; particularly as a fascinating treatise on one of life’s greatest mysteries: where does creativity come from? In this case, what “inspired” Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) to create her classic novel Frankenstein?

Russell’s speculative history tale suggests that “the Creature” was born during the course of a wild weekend at the country estate of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne). Byron invites Mary Shelly and her famous poet husband Percy (Julian Sands) for a sleepover that turns into a druggy, debauched night of “horror” (whether real or imagined is  left up to the viewer). Kinetic performances all round from a cast that includes Timothy Spall and Myriam Syr.  Stephen Volk wrote the screenplay; the music is by Thomas Dolby. There was added poignancy to my recent viewing, in light of Julian Sands’ tragic passing last year (Natasha Richardson also left us much too soon).

BFI has assembled an extensive package, starting with a sparkling transfer that nicely highlights DP Mike Southon’s vivid photography and Michael Buchanan’s lush art direction (his resume includes Orlando and The Krays).  There’s a heap of extras, including a full-length 83-minute 2002 video work by the director called The Fall of the Louse of Usher (starring  Russell and his wife Lisi) and a rare 27-minute Russell short from 1957 called Amelia and the Angel.

(Note: This is a Region ‘B’ disc, requiring an all-region player).

Blu-ray reissue: American Pop (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2024)

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American Pop (Columbia/Sony)

Within the realm of animated films, Ralph Bakshi’s name may not be as universally recognizable (or revered) as Walt Disney or Studio Ghibli, but I would consider him no less of an important figure in the history of the genre. During his heyday (1972-1983) the director pumped out 8 full-length feature films (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Wizards, et. al.) using his signature blend of live-action, rotoscoping, and  traditional cel animation.

In his 1981 film American Pop, director Bakshi  and screenwriter Ronni Kern ambitiously attempt to distill the history of 20th Century American popular music (essentially from Vaudeville to Punk) in 90 minutes. The narrative is framed via the triumphs and travails of four generations of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family (all of whom are involved one way or the other in the music business). Intelligently written, beautifully animated, with an eclectic soundtrack (everything from “Swanee” to “Pretty Vacant”).

Columbia/Sony’s release is bare bones; no commentary tracks or extra features. The transfer, while a definite improvement over my 2009 Columbia DVD edition, does not appear to be a “restored” print (the “mastered in high definition” notation on the back of the keep case is a tell). The 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio track is adequately robust for this engaging musical-drama.

Blu-ray reissue: The Day of the Locust (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2024)

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The Day of the Locust (Arrow Video)

Equal parts backstage drama, character study, and psychological horror, John Schlesinger’s 1975 drama (with a Waldo Salt screenplay adapted from the eponymous novel by Nathaneal West) is the most unsettling Hollywood dream-turned nightmare this side of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the story revolves around a Hollywood newbie (William Atherton) who works in the art department of a major movie studio. He rents a cheap apartment housed in a complex chockablock with eccentric tenants, including an aspiring starlet (Karen Black) who lives with her ailing father (Burgess Meredith), a former vaudevillian who wheezes his way up and down hilly streets eking out a living as a door-to-door snake oil salesman.

The young artist becomes hopelessly infatuated with the starlet, but it quickly becomes apparent that, while she’s friendly toward him, it’s strictly a one-sided romance. Nonetheless, he continues to get drawn into her orbit-a scenario that becomes increasingly twisted, especially once she impulsively marries a well-to-do  but socially inept and sexually repressed accountant (Donald Sutherland). It all culminates in a Grand Guignol finale you may find hard to shake off.

A  gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city (shot by ace cinematographer Conrad Hall) that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

Arrow has done a bang-up job with this edition, which features a gorgeous 2K remaster from the original negative and a plethora of extras (new commentary track, several visual essays, and more).

Arousal, Valence, and Depth: 10 Essential Albums of 1974

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2024)

“They” say that your taste in music is imprinted in your high school years. Why do you suppose this is? Is it biological? Is it hormonal? Or Is it purely nostalgia? According to a 2021 study, it may have something to do with “arousal, valence, and depth”. Say what?

Have you wondered why you love a particular song or genre of music? The answer may lie in your personality, although other factors also play a role, researchers say.

Many people tend to form their musical identity in adolescence, around the same time that they explore their social identity. Preferences may change over time, but research shows that people tend to be especially fond of music from their adolescent years and recall music from a specific age period — 10 to 30 years with a peak at 14 — more easily.

Musical taste is often identified by preferred genres, but a more accurate way of understanding preferences is by musical attributes, researchers say. One model outlines three dimensions of musical attributes: arousal, valence and depth.

“Arousal is linked to the amount of energy and intensity in the music,” says David M. Greenberg, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Cambridge. Punk and heavy metal songs such as “White Knuckles” by Five Finger Death Punch were high on arousal, a study conducted by Greenberg and other researchers found.

“Valence is a spectrum,” from negative to positive emotions, he says. Lively rock and pop songs such as “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley & His Comets were high on valence.

Depth indicates “both a level of emotional and intellectual complexity,” Greenberg says. “We found that rapper Pitbull’s music would be low on depth, [and] classical and jazz music could be high on depth.”

Also, musical attributes have interesting relationships with one another. “High depth is often correlated with lower valence, so sadness in music is also evoking a depth in it,” he says.

“They” may be right…I graduated in 1974, and the lion’s share of my CD collection/media player library is comprised of  (wait for it) albums and/or songs originally released between 1967-1982.

The music of 1974 in particular looms large in my memory; not only because that is the year I graduated, but that was also the year I landed my first steady radio gig, hosting the midnight-6am shift on KFAR-AM in Fairbanks (it’s one of the oldest stations in Alaska).

At the time, KFAR’s  format was Top 40. When I came on board in July of 1974, I was spinning then-current hits like “Rock Your Baby” by George McRae, “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot, “On and On” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers, “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies, and so on.

While mid-70s Top 40 fare was nothing if not eclectic, there was a demarcation between music I was being paid to play (and feign enthusiasm for), and what I preferred listening to during off-hours.

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That said, on occasion the twain would meet; after a few months on the job I began to sneak in a deep cut here and there from my personal LP collection. That was all hi-ho pip and dandy until the night the PD happened to be monitoring at 3am when I played “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground. I wasn’t fired, but he made it quite clear that I was never to play that cut again (several years later at another Fairbanks AM station I worked at, the music director admonished me for playing “Marakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash; he cited “…blowing through the smoke rings of my mind”…oy.)

Arousal, valance, and depth…oh my!

Anyway, here are my top 10  LPs of 1974 (note “the next 10” below).

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Autobahn – Kraftwerk

HAL 9000’s cruisin’ jams. While they already had three albums under their gürtels, Autobahn marked the debut of Kraftwerk’s now-signature “sound” (i.e. drum machines, synths, and robotic vocalizing). The album’s centerpiece is the hypnotic title cut, which eats up Side 1.Profoundly influential on a broad spectrum of artists, from Bowie (it informed his “Berlin period”) to seminal hip-hop acts.

Choice cuts: “Autobahn”, “Morgenspaziergang”, “Kometenmelodie 1”.

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Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell

In 1976, a friend and I caught the L.A. Express at The Troubadour. I remember being disappointed to learn that the group’s founder, legendary sax player Tom Scott, was no longer with them (ditto ace guitarist Robben Ford). Not that the musicians who replaced them were slouches (David Luell and Peter Maunu, respectively). Still, it was a tight set (all the members were top echelon session players).

Near the end of the evening, Luell took the mic and said, “Hey-we’d like to invite a couple friends up to sit in on a number or two.” I nearly had a heart attack when Robben Ford and (wait for it) Joni Mitchell casually sauntered onto the stage. I was so in thrall that I can’t even remember what songs they did (I’m not a New Age kinda cat, but believe me when I tell you Joni Mitchell had an aura. Wow).

Singling out the “best” Joni Mitchell album is a fool’s errand, but her 1974 release Court and Spark (backed by most of the original L.A. Express personnel) is damn near a perfect “10” in my book.

Choice cuts: “Court and Spark”, “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “People’s Parties”, “Car on a Hill”, “Just Like This Train”.

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Feel – George Duke

Like many other rock fans, I was introduced to jazz player/vocalist George Duke via his affiliation with Frank Zappa from the early to mid-70s.  But when I heard this album (his fourth), I realized he was no mere side player; Duke was a tremendously gifted artist in his own right. A strong set of funk, hard fusion and smooth jazz, fueled by Duke’s distinctive keys and bass synthesizer. Duke enlists some heavyweights: Brazilian musicians Flora Purim (vocals) and Airto Moreira (percussionist), and a guitarist credited as “Obdewl’l X”- aka Frank Zappa (“Love” features one of his best-ever solos).

Choice cuts: “Love”, “Feel”, “Cora Jobege”, “Yana Aminah”, “Rashid”.

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Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

Like  fellow German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (see above), 1974 was the year that Tangerine Dream found their “voice”. The magic number for them was album #5, Phaedra. The (figurative and literal) key was sequencers; a then-emergent technology Pink Floyd had  flirted with on Dark Side of the Moon (and not really popularized until Donna Summer’s sequencer-heavy 1977  hit “I Feel Love” ). Tangerine Dream opted for a more ambient, textural approach than Kraftwerk. With its mesmerizing, cinematic soundscapes Phaedra has held up well as a “headphone album”.

Choice cuts: “Phaedra”, “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares”, “Movements of a Visionary”.

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Pretzel Logic – Steely Dan

I still marvel at how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were able to find such massive commercial and critical success without compromising their willfully enigmatic and ever-droll worldview.  While the duo were famously fastidious and nit-picky from the get-go, this was (to my ears) their last album with an organic “band” feel; successive efforts, while all top-shelf product, had a more clinical vibe (as the saying goes on my favorite coffee mug: “The race for quality has no finish line, so technically it’s more like a death march.”)

Choice cuts: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Night by Night”, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”, “Pretzel Logic”, “With a Gun”, “Charlie Freak”.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s “stadium rock” album. Sporting only 5 cuts (4 Velvet Underground classics and one cut from Berlin), its a pure slab of heavy metal thunder, largely propelled by the dynamic guitar duo of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (the arrangement of “Sweet Jane” approaches prog). Lou sounds like he’s having…fun? Regrettably, I never caught Reed in concert, but I did see Hunter and Wagner in 1975, backing Alice Cooper on his Welcome to My Nightmare tour.

Choice cuts: “Intro/Sweet Jane”, “Heroin”, “Lady Day”.

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Sheer Heart Attack – Queen

It was a bit of a tough choice here, considering that Queen released not just one, but two fine albums in 1974 (the other was Queen II). What I like about Sheer Heart Attack is how it strikes the perfect balance between the band’s hard rock foundation and its harmony-driven pop sensibilities (the latter of which would dominate in subsequent releases, and not always for the best, I’m afraid).

Choice cuts: “Brighton Rock”, “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Misfire”, “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettoes)”.

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Sweet Fanny Adams – The Sweet

Dismissed by many at the time as a novelty bubblegum act (not completely unfounded, considering early U.K. hits like “Funny Funny”, “Co-co”, “Poppa Joe”, “Little Willy”, and “Wig Wam Bam”), this 1974 U.K. release (featuring some tracks that would appear later that year on the U.S. version of Desolation Boulevard) proved that lurking beneath all the glitz, glamour, and shag haircuts was a ballsy, hard-rocking quartet of superb musicians. Years later, bands like Def Leppard would cite this fine album as a major influence.

Choice cuts: “Set Me Free”, “Heartbreak Today”, “No You Don’t”, “Rebel Rouser”, “Sweet F.A.”, “Restless”, “Into the Night”.

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Todd – Todd Rundgren

In a post I did back in 2020 regarding that year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, I made my case for Todd Rundgren’s induction:

It’s shocking to me that the Hall waited until last year to nominate Todd; he had my vote (it didn’t take…they never listen to me). After all, he’s been in the biz for over 50 years, and is still going strong.  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer.

Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Todd finally did get inducted in 2021; but true to form, he crankily refused to accept it in person (he is a long time critic of the Hall). This 2-LP set is one of the highlights of his substantial catalog.

Choice cuts: “I Think You Know”, “A Dream Goes on Forever”, “The Last Ride”, “Useless Begging”, “Heavy Metal Kids”, “Don’t You Ever Learn?”.

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Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison

Speaking of cranky geniuses, 1974 saw the release of two of the finest albums of Van Morrison’s career: the superb live album Too Late to Stop Now, and this equally superb studio effort (another coin toss decision). While I have to hold my nose regarding his anti-vaxxer shenanigans of recent years, I still get lost in this beautiful, soulful and pastoral set of songs. The muse was strong here.

Choice cuts: “Fair Play”, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”, “Streets of Arklow”,  “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River”, “Cul de Sac”.

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more gems from 1974 worth a spin:

Bad Co – Bad Company
Crime of the Century – Supertramp
Fullfillingness’ First Finale – Stevie Wonder
Here Come the Warm Jets – Brian Eno
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-Genesis
Mysterious Traveller– Weather Report
Odds ‘n’ Sods – The Who
On the Beach– Neil Young
This is Augustus Pablo – Augustus Pablo

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2024)

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Why not kick off Superbowl Weekend by watching some sports movies? I’ve put together a list of 10 personal faves for you. Hey…save some of that guac for me (no double dipping).

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Bend it Like Beckham –  Writer-director Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that entertainingly marries “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood energy. The story centers on a headstrong young Sikh woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her tradition-minded parents by pursuing her “silly” dream to become a UK soccer star. Chadha 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 are warm and funny as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham Jules and Jim meets The Natural in writer-director Ron Shelton’s funny, sharply-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 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.

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Downhill Racer –This underrated 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 debut film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge. James Salter adapted the screenplay from Oakley Hall’s novel The Downhill Racers.

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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).

This film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft.

Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, 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 acclaimed 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 cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for his later films Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much ado over brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic, empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and play. The women are shown to be just as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly give 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) is a scene-stealer. Perennially underrated Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease in film history, and the cheerfully truculent “Hanson Brothers” are a hoot.

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This Sporting Life –Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 drama was one of the “angry young man” films that stormed from 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 star. Former pro rugby player David Storey adapted the screenplay from his own novel.

Extra innings!

Here are 10 more 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

Oh, mama…could this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 3, 2024)

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I don’t feel safe in this world no more
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman

-from “Apeman” by The Kinks, written by Ray Davies

Don’t put that umbrella away…the forecast is cloudy, with a chance of cosmic debris:

Meteorite hunters have successfully recovered fragments of an asteroid that impacted Earth over Berlin, Germany, on January 21st— and the space rocks could be very rare indeed.

The 3.3-foot (1-meter) wide asteroid dubbed 2024 BX1 was spotted by NASA around 90 minutes before it hit Earth’s atmosphere. It burned up upon impact, exploding and creating a fireball seen by observers across Europe.

Following the event, on January 22nd, intrepid meteorite hunters were out searching for fragments of Asteroid 2024 BX1. One team that hit pay dirt was led by SETI meteor scientist Peter Jenniskens; the crew found the second and third fragments to be uncovered. […]

The meteorites, weighing 5.3 grams and 3.1 grams respectively, were finally discovered by Freie Universitaet students Dominik Dieter and Cara Weihe at around noon local time on January 26th, with the team uncovering yet more samples on January 27th and 28th.

Well, no one got hurt, right? And besides, what are the odds of another one…oh, crap.

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(via Live Science on February 1st)

A “potentially hazardous” football stadium-size asteroid will zip safely past Earth on Friday (Feb. 2), and, in doing so, will reach its closest point to our planet for more than 100 years. It will also be at least several centuries before the space rock ever gets this close to us again. 

The massive asteroid, named 2008 OS7, is around 890 feet (271 meters) across and will pass by Earth at a distance of around 1.77 million miles (2.85 million kilometers), according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). For context, that is more than seven times further away than the moon orbits Earth.

Obviously we dodged that one (after all, it’s Saturday-and you’re reading this). Now I think we can relax. That should cap the gloom and doom for this week …oh, FFS:

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 23, 2024 – The Doomsday Clock was reset at 90 seconds to midnight, still the closest the Clock has ever been to midnight, reflecting the continued state of unprecedented danger the world faces. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, stewards of the Doomsday Clock, emphasized in their announcement that the Clock could be turned back, but governments and people needed to take urgent action. 

A variety of global threats cast menacing shadows over the 2024 Clock deliberations, including: the Russia-Ukraine war and deterioration of nuclear arms reduction agreements; the Climate Crisis and 2023’s official designation as the hottest year on record; the increased sophistication of genetic engineering technologies; and the dramatic advance of generative AI which could magnify disinformation and corrupt the global information environment making it harder to solve the larger existential challenges. 

But aside from the nuclear/environmental/technological threats…we’re in good shape?

Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, the Bulletin, said: “Make no mistake: resetting the Clock at 90 seconds to midnight is not an indication that the world is stable. Quite the opposite. It’s urgent for governments and communities around the world to act. And the Bulletin remains hopeful—and inspired—in seeing the younger generations leading the charge.” 

I’m getting mixed messages. You’ve seen the X-rays, so just give it to me straight, doc.

A durable end to Russia’s war in Ukraine seems distant, and the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in that conflict remains a serious possibility. In February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to “suspend” the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In March, he announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In June, Sergei Karaganov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged Moscow to consider launching limited nuclear strikes on Western Europe as a way to bring the war in Ukraine to a favorable conclusion. In October, Russia’s Duma voted to withdraw Moscow’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as the US Senate continued to refuse even to debate ratification.  

Nuclear spending programs in the three largest nuclear powers—China, Russia, and the United States—threaten to trigger a three-way nuclear arms race as the world’s arms control architecture collapses. Russia and China are expanding their nuclear capabilities, and pressure mounts in Washington for the United States to respond in kind.     

Meanwhile, other potential nuclear crises fester. Iran continues to enrich uranium to close to weapons grade while stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency on key issues. Efforts to reinstate an Iran nuclear deal appear unlikely to succeed, and North Korea continues building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Nuclear expansion in Pakistan and India continues without pause or restraint. 

The candidates’ suitability to shoulder the immense presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons should be a central concern of the US election in fall. This is especially true given the concerns at the end of the previous administration, which prompted then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley to take steps to ensure that he would be consulted in the event the former president sought to launch nuclear weapons. 

And the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has the potential to escalate into a wider Middle Eastern conflict that could pose unpredictable threats, regionally and globally. 

Jeez. I bet you guys are fun at parties.

Anyway, the pure entertainment value of Armageddon has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues, or mankind’s curious propensity for seeking new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve curated my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature.

So enjoy…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, postmodernist fantasy re-imagines Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, a yuppie Jesus (Martin Donovan) and his P.A., Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) jet into NYC, checking into their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”. J.C. has arrived to facilitate Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. However, the kid has doubts about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also in town. Trials and tribulations ensue.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s engrossing and thought-provoking.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

This cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) was written and directed by Val Guest. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but has a compelling narrative. Co-starring veteran scene-stealer Leo McKern.

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. (Full review)

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Ornery aliens

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because McKellar employs a similar quiet, deliberate manner of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are plenty of wry touches (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings). The powerful denouement packs quite a wallop.

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar tosses fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this 1998 sleeper is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists.

Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

Double Bill: w/ When the Wind Blows

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a mesmerizing performance in this 1985 cult film, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). New Zealand director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this a nail-biter from start to finish.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomy of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal). Rudolph Maté directed; Sydney Boehm adapted his screenplay from the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.

Double Bill: w/ Another Earth

Further hand-wringing:

Happy End of the World: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

Viral Movies: 10 Films You Never Want to Catch

West Coast Aflame, Film at 11: Top 10 Eco-flicks

All This and WWIII: A Mixtape

Richland

76 Days

The Planet

The Road

Five

2012

Summer Wars

9

 

Lest we forget: Films (and thoughts) for Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2024)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/phil-cramer.jpg?w=510&quality=89&ssl=1Phillip Kramer (1892-1962)

The strapping young man in the photo above is my grandfather Philip Kramer (in his late teens or early twenties, to my best estimation). He immigrated to America from Bialystok circa 1910. While the area is now part of the Republic of Poland, Bialystok “belonged” to the Russian Empire when he lived there (ergo, he was fluent in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish).

One of the reasons his family emigrated was to flee the state terror inflicted on Russia’s Jewish population by Czar Nicholas (the Bialystok pogram of 1906 was particularly nasty).

I suppose I have Czar Nicholas to thank for my existence. If my grandfather had never left Bialystok, he never would have met New York City born-and-raised Celia Mogerman (the daughter of Jewish German immigrants). Consequently, they never would have fallen in love, got married, and had their daughter Lillian, who never would have met and fallen in love with a young G.I. named Robert Hartley (a W.A.S.P. farm boy from Ohio) at a New York City U.S.O. Club. They, in turn, produced…me (otherwise, you’d just be staring at a blank page here).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/36867554_10216247821138001_5944935354204160000_n.jpg?w=843&quality=89&ssl=1Two lovebirds on their honeymoon, 1955

Obvious personal reasons aside, I’m thankful that Phil got out of Dodge well before Hitler’s army divisions rolled into Poland in 1939. Needless to say, the Jews of Bialystok fared no better under the Nazi regime than they did during the reign of the Czar. Far worse, actually.

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So through luck and circumstance, Phil and Celie (flanking my mom in bottom row) enjoyed a wonderful life together, creating a quintessential American family. All three of their children did their part for the war effort. My uncle Irving (third from left in the top row) served in the USAAF (he was the radio operator on a B-25 crew that flew a number of missions over Germany). My Uncle Charles (not pictured) served in the U.S. Army (Pacific theater).

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My mother (center above) was too young to enlist in the military, but served in the Civilian Defense Force. The photo was taken on a Brooklyn rooftop during the war (interestingly, it took intervention by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to nudge the recruitment of women).

Thankfully, the Kramer family survived the war. But sadly a great number of their relatives who had remained in Europe did not. And many of them were victims of the Holocaust.

That is why I am thinking about all of them on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It appears I am not alone in this contemplation of fate, circumstance, and family roots; which is particularly…complicated this first Remembrance Day since the events of October 7:

Recently, my mother, who escaped Hungary as a young teen in 1943 as the Nazis were closing in, called me from her home in Jerusalem. She was quite agitated, asking why even Israel’s loyal friends seem to be promoting compromise on issues fundamental to its security. She begged me to speak to anyone and everyone I know, from community leaders to elected officials.

As the world marks Saturday, January 27, as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is clear that my mother needs no such day. The question the Jewish people must be asking is who will benefit from a day in January, 2024, designated to remember the Holocaust? […]

The United Nations, which at the initiative of its Israeli delegation designated the day back in 2005 to build Holocaust awareness and prevent further acts of genocide, now deploys the lessons of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. The U.N. has yet to condemn the explicitly and admittedly genocidal acts of Hamas against Israel on October 7 while its International Court of Justice is trying Israel for genocide in Gaza. If this is the result of remembering the Holocaust, we Jews would prefer they forgot about it. [,,,]

Everyday since Oct. 7, my mother is reminded of and haunted by the delusions of her grandparents and more than a dozen uncles and aunts who naively chose not to join her parents’ escape to Palestine as the Nazi menace spread, only to be turned to ashes in Auschwitz. She often muses aloud about how my father, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, would process October 7th in Israel, October 8th in Harvard, and October 9th in the UN.

It’s not easy being a Jewish American right now, which is why I’ve been reticent to share my feelings on the Israeli-Hamas war (aside from my initial reflexive expression of abhorrence to the prospect of more death and destruction in the region, regardless of who propagates it).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/54g6n0l17uw21.jpg?w=847&quality=89&ssl=1From “Harold and Maude” (1971)

There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

For example, here’s how some fine folks were reacting this morning on X to posts that merely acknowledged this commemorative holiday:

Those are some of the nicest ones. But you get the gist.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I just overreacting to a few internet trolls and a current presidential hopeful who, when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -stated that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Here’s hoping for some “improvement” going forward. That’s why it’s important to look backward sometimes at the lessons of history, so we remain aware of how we don’t want to be. Here are links to some films I’ve written about that might give us a good place to start:

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Aftermath

Big Sonia

Hannah Arrendt

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

The Invisibles

The Last Laugh

Black Book

Germans and Jews

Shalom Italia

Django

Inglourious Basterds

Harold and Maude

Kleptocracy Now: A Top 1% List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 20, 2024)

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History never repeats (I tell myself before I go to sleep)

– Split Enz

Thankfully, I was between gulps of coffee when I espied this tidbit on X (re-posted by Digby)…otherwise I would have done an involuntary spit take all over my Cocoa Puffs:

“Wait a minute…that has to be a parody account,” I thought to myself. But nope, that is from the actual Bill Kristol, neoconservative writer and commentator. He was (in his words) “provoked” into sharing that observation after “reading a couple articles about Davos.”

I suspect it’s not just the shenanigans this past week at the World Economic Forum that prompted this magical trip to the other side of the wardrobe, but the all-too-real *possibility* of history repeating itself this November (do I need to spell it out?). I pray (as fervently as an agnostic can) that “it” doesn’t happen again…but in our heart of hearts, you and I both know that it could.

With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit a “top 10 list” I originally posted on the eve of Inauguration Day 2017, which contains bellwethers that may need to be heeded once again. With my childlike grasp of investment strategies, the best tip I can give is: go long on Hope.

(The following was originally published on Hullabaloo on January 14, 2017)

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“To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.”

– from the official website for the film, The Corporation

I don’t know about you, but my jaw is getting pretty sore from repeatedly dropping to the floor with each successive cabinet nomination by our incoming CEO-in-chief of the United States of Blind Trust. It seems that candidate Trump, who ran on an oft-bleated promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. bears little resemblance to President-elect Trump, who is currently hell-bent on loading the place up with even more alligators.

When I heard the name “Rex Tillerson” bandied about as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, it rang a bell. I knew he was the former head of Exxon, so it wasn’t that. Then I remembered. Mr. Tillerson was one of the “stars” of a documentary I reviewed several years back, called Greedy Lying Bastards (conversely, if I hear the words “greedy lying bastards,” bandied about, “Trump’s cabinet picks” is the first phrase that comes to mind).

So with that in mind, and in keeping with my occasional unifying theme, “Hollywood saw this coming”, I was inspired to comb my review archives of the last 10 years to see if any bellwethers were emerging that may have been dropping hints that the planets were aligning in such a manner as to set up a path to the White House for an orange TV clown (the “self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful” kind of orange TV clown).

All 10 of these films were released within the last 10 years. I’ll let you be the judge:

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The Big Short Want the good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ eponymous 2010 non-fiction book is an outstanding comedy-drama; an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The bad news is…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we stood by, blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Good times!  (Full review)

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Capitalism: A Love Story – Back in 2009, Digby and I did a double post on this film, which was Michael Moore’s reaction to the 2008 crash. Here’s how I viewed his intent:

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger and Me […] at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

Digby gleaned something else from the film that did a flyover on me at the time:

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn’t really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It’s a call for citizens to focus their minds on what’s actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn’t feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he’s ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.

She called it. “Someone” did tap into that populist sentiment; but sadly, it wasn’t the Left. (Full review)

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Forecaster – There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

And something tells me that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

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Greedy Lying Bastards – I know it’s cliché to quote Joseph Goebbels, but: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s the theme of Craig Rosebraugh’s 2013 documentary. As one interviewee offers: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.” What is the debate in question here? Global warming.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects dots between high-profile deniers (“career skeptics…in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. Shills range from media pundits (with no background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Think tanks and other organizations are exposed as mouthpieces for Big Money.

Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes-which is not reassuring. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which might come in handy after January 20th. (Full review)

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Inside Job I have good news and bad news about documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Ferguson starts where the seeds were sown-rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (“morning in America”-remember?). The film illustrates, point by point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” to enable the 2008 crisis- through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are still living with today…and I suspect it is about to get unimaginably worse.  (Full review)

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The International Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms…

What a fantasy! (Not.)

The international bank in question is under investigation by an Interpol agent (Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes, they die under mysterious circumstances. Once the agent teams up with an American D.A. (Naomi Watts), much more complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

The timing of the film’s release (in 2010) was interesting, in light of the then-current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. Screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the KISS drummer) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal.   (Full review)

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The Queen of Versailles In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 doc, billionaire David Siegel shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex in Vegas. In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (how he must have suffered).

While Greenfield’s portrait of Siegal, his wife Jackie, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs is chock full of wacky “you couldn’t make this shit up” reality TV moments, there is an elephant in the room…the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

However, there is a more chilling message, buried near the end of the film. When Siegel boasts he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.” Gosh, imagine a billionaire having the power to “buy” the POTUS of their choice. Worse yet, imagine a similarly odious billionaire becoming the POTUS. Oh.   (Full review)

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Welcome to New York While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s film is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip. The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing).

I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose (2024 sidebar: Umm…)

It is interesting watching the hulking Gerard Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Marlon Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris. Jacqueline Bisset gives a good supporting turn as the long-suffering wife.   (Full review)

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The Yes Men Fix the World – Anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (aka “The Yes Men”) and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Once this springboard is established, the fun begins. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right term, but there are hijinks afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. “Corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds. It’s a call to activism that is as timely as ever.   (Full review)

Blood at the root: an MLK Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 13, 2024)

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I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 2 months later on June 5th, 1968 – my parents’ wedding anniversary…cue the Twilight Zone theme). But this holiday weekend is about celebrating Dr. King’s birthday; so I have curated 10 songs to honor his legacy:

“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young

“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.

“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).

“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.

“Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – The inclusion of U2’s most stirring anthem feels mandatory.

“Shed a Little Light” – James Taylor’s uplifting, gospel-flavored paean to MLK is featured on his 1991 album New Moon Shine.

“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s performance of this song (written by Abel Meeropol) was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.

“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.