Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying).

The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and look for Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook. https://i1.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BYjZhMWRmMzEtMWNiZS00ZjE3LWJmZDAtMmQ1OTU2MjMwYTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg?resize=474%2C320&ssl=1  Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

https://filmsonthesilverscreen.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/the-cook-the-thief6.jpg?w=474  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

https://i0.wp.com/media1.popsugar-assets.com/files/thumbor/4fH_iaFjP4JKcDXLad4OqvLIXAM/fit-in/2048xorig/filters:format_auto-!!-:strip_icc-!!-/2017/08/30/025/n/1922283/7b0631ff3f8b02e4_MSDPUFI_EC029_H/i/Honey-Bunny-Pumpkin.JPG?resize=474%2C318&ssl=1  Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

https://i2.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/KA_01_TheTripToSpain_S01.jpg?w=474&ssl=1 The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him.

This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by three equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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Tom Jones– The film that made the late Albert Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety.

The film earns its spot on this list for a brief but iconic (and very tactile) eating scene involving Finney and the wonderful Joyce Redman (see below).

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

Bon Appétit!

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 20, 2021)

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Note: Monday marks 58 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday.

I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the gym for an all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that flourish to this day.

Then there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely …forthcoming.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (Condon also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (apolitical) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between byzantine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark comedy.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is an upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 hostage drama/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as John Baron, the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town (interestingly, the role of John Baron was originally offered to Montgomery Clift).

The film is essentially a chamber piece; the assassins commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot at their intended target. In this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t give me that politics jazz-it’s not my racket!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

Also in the cast: Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Christopher Dark, and Paul Frees (Frees would later become known as “the man of a thousand voices” for his voice-over work with Disney, Jay Ward Productions, Rankin/Bass and other animation studios).

Some aspects of the film are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

There have been conflicting stories over the years whether Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation following Kennedy’s death; the definitive answer may lie in remarks made by Frank Sinatra, Jr., in a commentary track he did for a 2012 Blu-ray reissue of the film:

[Approximately 2 weeks] after the assassination of President Kennedy, a minor network official at ABC television decided he was going to run “Suddenly” on network television. This, while the people were still grieving and numbed from the horror of the death of President Kennedy. When word of this reached Sinatra, he was absolutely incensed…one of the very few times had I ever seen him that angry. He got off a letter to the head of broadcasting at ABC, telling them that they should be jailed; it was in such bad taste to do that after the death of President Kennedy.

Sinatra, Jr. does not elaborate any further, so I interpret that to mean that Frank, Sr. fired off an angry letter, and the fact that the film remains in circulation to this day would indicate that it was never actually “pulled” (of course, you are free to concoct your own conspiracy theory).

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. Some of the Cold War references have dated; others (as it turns out) are oddly timely…evidenced as recently as this past week.

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.

Frankly, the premise is more intriguing than the film (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian De Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape.

The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “De Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

When you’re young: The Pebble and the Boy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2021)

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Reporter : Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo : Um, no. I’m a mocker.

-from A Hard Day’s Night, screenplay by Alun Owen

Having grown up in the colonies, I didn’t grok “Mods and Rockers” until 1973, the year I bought The Who’s Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s paean to the teenage Mod subculture that flourished in the U.K. from the late 50s to mid-60s. The Mods had very distinct musical preferences (jazz, ska, R&B, soul), couture, and modes of transportation:

My jacket’s gonna be cut slim and checked
Maybe a touch of seersucker with an open neck
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat
I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet

– from “Sea and Sand”, by The Who

On occasion the Mods would rumble with members of another youth subculture who identified as “Rockers”. They were not as tailored as the Mods but had their own uniforms…let’s just say that they were into leather (as in Tuscadero), motorcycles (as opposed to scooters), and 50s rock (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, et.al.).

Here come duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
She’s tehone with the flying feet
You can break the peace daddy sickle grease
The beat is reet complete

– from “Sweet Gene Vincent”, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

By the time the Who were rhapsodizing about the Mods in their 1973 rock opera, the movement was all but relegated to the dustbins of history. In 1979, Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of Quadrophenia was released. Using the 1964 Brighton “youth riots” as a catalyst, Roddam fashioned a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the U.K. in the early 60s. Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s songs.

Here is where it gets interesting. Not long after Roddam’s film began to build a cult following in the U.K., a Mod revival took hold. It may be more accurate to call it a “post” Mod movement, as this iteration was more about co-opting the couture than embracing the culture. Did the film inspire this revival? Some have suggested it did.

While the Who was the band of choice for the original Mods, the 80s Mods embraced bands like The Jam, Secret Affair, and The Chords. Not coincidentally, all 3 of those bands are on the soundtrack for writer-director Chris Green’s comedy-drama The Pebble and the Boy.

19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent unfortunate demise in a traffic accident. John not only inherits his father’s house (his parents are divorced), but his Lambretta scooter, fully bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Coming home after the funeral, John contemplates his father’s bedroom, which is done up like a shrine to The Jam (John only likes “one of their songs”).

Initially, John puts the Lambretta up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter his father’s ashes in the sea.

Not long after he leaves Manchester, the scooter displays signs of needing a tune-up, so he looks up one his father’s pals from the Mod days (“Your dad and I first met at a Jam gig in ’81,” he reminisces to John). When his outgoing daughter Nicki (scene-stealer Sacha Parkinson) learns John has Paul Weller tickets, she invites herself along (she has her own scooter). After a few road trip misadventures (usually instigated by the free-spirited Nicki), the pair find themselves short of funds for completing their journey.

The more reserved John wants to turn back, but Nicki suggests they stop in nearby Woking (the Jam’s hometown, of course) to borrow money from Ronnie (Ricci Harnett), another of John’s father’s friends from the Mod days. The somewhat surly Ronnie and his, uh …friendly wife (Patsy Kensit) invite them to stay the night. The next day, John and Nicki hit the road to Brighton, now joined by Ronnie’s oddball son Logan (Max Boast).

Green’s film is like a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth in the way he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor (even when someone says, “Fuck off!” it’s so good natured, somehow). McNamee is an appealing lead (he reminds me of the young Timothy Hutton), but it’s Parkinson’s sly performance as the endearingly boisterous Nicki that kicks the film up a notch. Rubber-faced Boast is another discovery; he’s a riot.

The bucolic English countryside and Brighton seascapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Max Williams (not too surprising after seeing that his previous credits include documentaries for Discovery, National Geographic and the BBC). Add a great soundtrack, and The Pebble and the Boy emerges as one of my favorite films of 2021.

“The Pebble and the Boy” premieres November 16 on various digital platforms.

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Earlier today, my brother posted this on Facebook:

While going through my father’s stuff after his passing we found a large stack of envelopes. They turned out to be letters from junior high students thanking him for the talk he gave the students on Veteran’s Day. It turned out there were over 14 packed envelopes. One for every Veteran’s Day he spoke with the students. My brothers and I were very close to throwing these out with many of the other miscellaneous papers in my Dad’s cabinets but, without even looking at the contents I decided to keep them. I finally opened them up today and started going through them.

I used to kid my late father about being a pack rat but I am grateful that he was. I recall him telling me about giving classroom talks as part of his work with a local Vietnam Veteran’s group, but today was the first time I have ever seen one of those letters. I remember listening to those cassettes he sent us during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

That mention of the Secret Service refers to the 1968 Presidential campaign. Our family was stationed near Dayton, Ohio that year. For the first 17 years of his military service, my dad was an E.O.D. (Explosive Ordinance Detachment) specialist. Whenever presidential candidates came through the area, members of his unit would work with the Secret Service to help sweep venues for explosive devices in preparation for rallies and speeches.

I remember that he helped prepare for appearances by Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. I remember him showing me a special pin that he had to wear, which would indicate to Secret Service agents that he had security clearance (I’m sure they are still stashed away in one of those boxes).

Today happens to be Veteran’s Day, but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. In honor of the holiday, here are my top 10 picks for films that deal with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par.

Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion).

Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza.

I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself” before I could leave the theater. No film has ever affected me quite like that.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Over time I’ve come to view it more as a black comedy; largely attributable to its prescience regarding our current political climate.…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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

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

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

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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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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter when attempting to understand what snaps inside the mind of those who carry their war experiences home.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (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 Afghanistan . After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which gets pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. He is ordered home to face 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 heart and soul together while maintaining as much “normalcy” 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)

To learn how you can help vets, visit the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site .

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)

Angel dust Byrons: A Rock ‘n’ Noir mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 6, 2021)

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Heard about the restaurant on the Moon? Great food…no atmosphere.

Yeah, I know. You rolled out of your crib in hysterics the first time you heard that one. But let’s face it – “atmosphere” is essential; not just for breathing, but for setting a mood.

I’ve curated a noir mixtape that is all about atmosphere; 15 songs evoking dark alleys, rain-slicked streets, low-rent rooms, beautiful losers, and broken dreams. In other words, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. Besides …everyone knows tough guys don’t dance.

STAN RIDGWAY: Drive, She Said – Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” meets Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in this cinematic cabby’s tale from the former Wall of Voodoo lead singer.

THE ALLIES: Emma Peel – The Allies were an early 80s power pop band from Seattle who should have gone places. Unrequited love in the sickly glow of a cathode ray.

Emma, I’ll be your Steed
I’ll be all you ever need
If I cry and if I bleed
Will it help me?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Watching the Detectives – Another two-dimensional dream. She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake… Damn, that’s cold.

THE DOORS: Riders on the StormThere’s a killer on the road. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.

JULEE CRUISE: Summer Kisses, Winter TearsAnd nothing can light the dark of the night/Like a falling star. Somehow, that’s less than reassuring. Ms. Cruise’s Elvis cover is nothing, if not atmospheric.

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: Then Came the Last Days of MayWasn’t until the car suddenly stopped/In the middle of a cold and barren plain… A tragic tale of a drug deal gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive – I’m on the lam, but I ain’t no sheep.

Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

WAS (NOT WAS): Somewhere in America (There’s a Street Named After My Dad) – Our luckless protagonist is trapped in an asphalt jungle; dreaming of a pleasant valley Sunday.

At night only crickets
No prowlers, no sirens
No pinky ring hustlers
No angel dust Byrons
No bars on the windows
No saber-toothed neighbors
Just good simple folks
In a rainbow of flavors

MICHAEL FRANKS: Nightmoves – An instrumental version of this moody piece played under the opening credits for Arthur Penn’s eponymous 1975 neo-noir.

I keep you in frame and I whisper your name till the picture fades
The feeling is already gone, I don’t know why I’m going on
Can’t remember the ending

DAVID BAERWALD: A Secret Silken World – I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Baerwald went to find the characters for this story, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

The seats of his car were like a woman’s skin
Made me think about all those places I’ve been
It made me understand murder and the nature of sin
I leaned back and I listened to his music

AL STEWART: Broadway Hotel – According to Al Stewart, “It’s a very strange song. It’s about a woman who checks into a hotel in order to be alone. She’s alone for a little while and she orders room service. The man who comes up and brings the trey begins a lengthy relationship with her. They lock themselves in the room for about a week and then they order room service.” Oh, what does he know about it? I’m still picturing the flickering light of a neon sign stabbing through the blinds of the hotel room window…

You’re seeking a hideaway
Where the light of day
Doesn’t touch your face
And a door sign keeps the world away
Behind the shades
Of your silent day.

CAFÉ JACQUES: Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Al Dubin’s 1933 composition has been covered many times, but I’m partial to this 1978 version by art-rockers Café Jacques. The message is evergreen: life is hard on the street, and everything is for sale.

Walk alone the street of sorrow, boulevard of broken dreams
Gigolo and gigolette take a kiss without regret
Here is where you’ll always find me, always walking up and down
But I left my soul behind me, in an old cathedral town

COCKNEY REBEL: Mirror Freak –Steve Harley’s enigmatic tale of skins, spivs, and other assorted night creatures.

Oh you’re too cute to be a big rock star
But if you’re cool you may not push it too far
Oh just believe in yourself and take a tip from the elf
And sing a boogie to the image fatale

GIL SCOTT-HERON: Pieces of a Man – Everyone has their breaking point. Gil Scott-Heron’s soulful vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics render a heartbreaking tale.

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom

They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Raymond Chandler Evening – And with this selection, our coda, have a pleasant one.

It’s a Raymond Chandler Evening,
And the pavements are all wet,
And I’m lurking in the shadows
‘Cause it hasn’t happened yet.

[Scary] Mask Required: 13 movies for Halloween!

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 30, 2021)

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(With apologies to Rod Serling for my frightfully tacky paraphrasing) Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of 13 films. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a celluloid canvas, streaming in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare. And …Happy Halloween!

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Beauty and the Beast (1946) – Out of myriad movie adaptations of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version remains the most soulful and poetic. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was made by a director who literally had the soul of a poet (Cocteau’s day job, in case you didn’t know). The film is a triumph of production design, with inventive visuals (photographed by Henri Alekan).

Jean Marais is affecting as The Beast, paralyzed by unrequited passion for beautiful Belle (Josette Day). This version is a surreal fairy tale not necessarily made with the kids in mind (especially with all the psycho-sexual subtexts). The timeless moral of the original tale, however, is still simple enough for a child to grasp: It’s what’s inside that counts.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens (co-creator of The Avengers TV series). Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) assist a physician in investigating a mysterious malady befalling the residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging.

The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro. The film was released at the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why Clemens seems to be doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

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Don’t Look Now – This is a difficult film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth) stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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Ed Wood – Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they are surely joined at the hip by now. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality.

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public in the late 50s.

While there are lots of belly laughs, there’s no punching downward at Wood and his decidedly off-beat collaborators; in a way the film is a love letter to outsider film makers. Martin Landau steals his scenes with a droll, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Also with Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones.

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I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 80 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake.

She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man – Always remember, never mix your drinks. And, as we learn from Jack Arnold’s 1957 sci-fi classic, you should never mix radiation exposure with insecticide…because that will make you shrink, little by little, day by day. That’s what happens to Everyman Grant Williams (Scott Carey), much to the horror of his wife (Randy Stuart) and his stymied doctors.

Unique for its time in that it deals primarily with the emotional, rather than fantastical aspect of the hapless protagonist’s transformation. To be sure, the film has memorable set-pieces (particularly Grant’s chilling encounters with a spider and his own house cat), but there is more emphasis on how the dynamics of the couple’s relationship changes as Grant becomes more diminutive.  The denouement presages the existential finale of The Quiet Earth.

In the fullness of time, some have gleaned sociopolitical subtext in Richard Matheson’s screenplay; or at least a subtle thumb in the eye of 1950s conformity. Matheson adapted from his novel. He also wrote the popular I Am Legend (adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth , The Omega Man  and the eponymous 2007 film).

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The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – “Images of wax that throbbed with human passion!” Get your mind out of the gutter…I’m merely quoting the purple prose that graced the original posters for this 1933 horror thriller, directed by the eclectic Michael Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, et.al.).

Beautiful (and busy) Fay Wray (who starred in King Kong the same year) captures the eye of a disturbed wax sculptor (a hammy Lionel Atwill) for reasons that are ah…more “professional” than personal. Wray is great eye candy, but it is her co-star Glenda Farrell who steals the show as a wisecracking reporter (are there any other kind of reporters in 30s films?). Farrell’s comedy chops add just the right amount of levity to this genuinely creepy tale. A classic.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Speaking of Fay Wray…46 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings.

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Rosemary’s Baby“He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this devilish 1968 metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to Rosemary’s chagrin). Her nightmare is only beginning.

No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Shout – This unsettling 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Robert Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. The late John Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological horror and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (which would make a great double-bill) this one is in your wheelhouse.

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SiestaSiesta – Depending on who you ask, Mary Lambert’s 1987 thriller is either a compelling riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…or an unfinished film in search of a narrative. It was not well received by critics, but has a modest cult following, of which I am a card-carrying member.

Ellen Barkin stars as an American daredevil who wakes up on a deserted runway in Spain, dazed, bruised and confused. As she wanders about getting her bearings, pieces of her memory return. She encounters assorted characters in increasingly weird scenarios. The film lies somewhere between Carnival of Souls and Memento.

The interesting cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, and Jodie Foster. Patricia Louisiana Knop (9½ Weeks) adapted the screenplay from Patrice Chaplin’s novel. Atmospheric score by Miles Davis.

Unfortunately, the film is out-of-print and not streaming, but I found this UCLA Film & Television Preservation Archive forum from 2019 featuring director Lambert, Ellen Barkin and Jodie Foster discussing the film at a screening (caution: spoilers!). I hope that the mention of a restored print indicates a Blu-ray reissue is in the offing.

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Ugetsu Monogatari – Kenji Mizoguchi’s eerie 1953 ghost story/morality tale was adapted from several short stories by 18th-Century writer and poet Ueda Akinari.

The story is set in 16th-Century Japan, in the midst of one of the civil wars of the era. A potter of modest means and grandiose financial schemes (Masayuki Mori) and his n’er do well brother (Eitaro Ozawa) who fantasizes about becoming a renowned samurai warrior ignore the dire warnings of a local sage and allow their greed and ambition to take full hold, which leads to tragic consequences for their abandoned wives (Mitsuko Mito and Kinuyo Tanaka).

Beautifully acted; particularly strong performances by the three female leads (Mito, Tanaka, and the great Machiko Kyo as the sorceress Lady Wakasa). It’s a slow-burning tale, but if you just give it time the emotional wallop of the denouement will floor you.

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Young Frankenstein – Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side.

Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring a non-billed Gene Hackman (as an old blind hermit) is a classic.

This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

A conference of worms: Smoke & Mirrors (***) & Dune (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2021)

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I confess that I initially felt out of my depth tackling Jason Baker’s documentary Smoke & Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini. I knew Savini was an actor, primarily from George Romero’s Knightriders (one of my favorite cult movies) and two Robert Rodriguez films: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Planet Terror (2007). What I did not know (embarrassingly) was that despite 77 acting credits, he is more revered by horror fans and industry peers for his makeup artistry and (disturbingly) realistic special effects wizardry.

Perhaps I can be forgiven; looking up his special effects/makeup credits, it turns out I have only seen 3 out of dozens.  I am not averse to the horror genre per se, it’s just that I’m not a fan of slasher/gore films; I tend to avoid them altogether.

But since (to paraphrase Marlon Brando in The Godfather) “it doesn’t make any difference to me what a man does for a living” (with the proviso no one is harmed in the process), I plowed forward with an open mind and an impending deadline and found Baker’s film to be a surprisingly warm, engaging portrait of a genuinely interesting artist.

The big surprise is how soft-spoken Baker’s subject is; especially when his resume reads more like a slaughterhouse tour than a fun night at the movies: Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Maniac, Creepshow, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Trauma, Machete, et.al.

Savini grew up in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood and developed a talent for performing magic tricks at an early age. He also became obsessed with the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. He recalls experimenting with various household products to create his own horror makeup, to freak out his family and friends. Obviously, this kid was destined for a life on the stage …or in front of a movie camera.

The most fascinating elements of this predestination were Savini’s experiences in Vietnam, where he served as a combat photographer. Obviously, if your job assignment literally involves focusing on gruesome images day in and day out, it’s going to do a number on your head. Savini describes how he internally compartmentalized the real-life horror of what he saw as “special effects” (which he’d later draw upon for his film work).

Savini also recounts his collaborations with director George Romero, who gave him his first movie gig in his 1976 indie Martin (which was filmed in Pittsburgh). Savini not only acted in the film but created its prosthetic effects. Savini continued to perfect his craftsmanship in higher-budgeted Romero films like Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.

Some of Savini’s friends and colleagues (Robert Rodriguez, George A. Romero, Alice Cooper, Sid Haig, Corey Feldman) also appear in the film; their consensus is that Savini is a nice guy…even if he makes his living giving us nightmares. In fact, there’s an overdose of people telling us how nice he is (puff piece territory). But he seems like a nice guy. Just attribute all that murder and gory mayhem to …smoke and mirrors.

“Smoke & Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini” is streaming on various digital platforms.

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In an interview published by The Hollywood Reporter in April of 2020, David Lynch made these observations regarding Denis Villenueve’s (then) upcoming remake of Dune:

(Interviewer) This week they released a few photos from the new big-screen adaptation of Dune by Denis Villeneuve. Have you seen them?

I have zero interest in Dune.

Why’s that?

Because it was a heartache for me. It was a failure, and I didn’t have final cut. I’ve told this story a billion times. It’s not the film I wanted to make. I like certain parts of it very much — but it was a total failure for me.

You would never see someone else’s adaptation of Dune?

I said I’ve got zero interest.

If you had your choice, what would you rather make: a feature film or a TV series?

A TV series. Right now. Feature films in my book are in big trouble, except for the big blockbusters. The art house films, they don’t stand a chance. They might go to a theater for a week and if it’s a Cineplex they go to the smallest theater in the setup, and then they go to Blu-ray or On Demand. The big-screen experience right now is gone. Gone, but not forgotten.

Keep in mind, that interview was conducted during the initial lock-down phase of the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I am still not “ready” to go back to movie theaters. As I wrote in an October 2020 piece about COVID’s effect on theaters:

…that is my personal greatest fear about returning to movie theaters: my innate distrust of fellow patrons. […] I can trust myself to adhere to a common-sense approach, but it’s been my observation throughout this COVID-19 crisis that everybody isn’t on the same page regarding taking the health and safety of fellow humans into consideration.

I’ve noticed a trend as of late where Hollywood studio marketing departments are insisting that you must see their latest blockbuster on the big screen, otherwise you’re just a fraidy cat, cowering in front of your pathetic little 40” flat-screen. Believe me, as a lifelong movie lover I am pulling for the exhibition arm of the industry and want to see them thrive once again, but to my knowledge, no amount of wishful thinking ever defeated a killer virus. As much as I am dying to see the new Bond movie on a big-ass screen, I’ve decided to hold off a while because for me, this is no time to die.

I suppose this long-winded prelude is my way of giving a disclaimer that the following review of Denis Villenueve’s long-anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune does not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff or management of Digby’s Hullabaloo, but those of a fraidy cat, cowering in front of his pathetic little 40” flat-screen.

To put your mind at ease, I’m not going to bore you with a laundry list of how the film does or doesn’t adhere to the author’s original vision in the source novel; mainly since it’s been 40-something years since I read it, and all I can remember is that it felt like homework. It just didn’t grab me like the universe-building works of Asimov, Zelazny, Niven, and similar sci-fi scribes my stoner friends and I were all into at the time.

Obviously, David Lynch is not a fan of his own 1984 adaptation; the first time I saw it 37 years ago I wasn’t either …but in the fullness of time, it has grown on me (as Lynch’s films tend to do). Yes, it has certain cheesy elements that even time cannot heal, but how can you possibly top Kenneth McMillan’s hammy performance as an evil, floating bag of pus, Brad Dourif’s bushy eyebrows…or Sting’s magnificently oiled torso?

It is evident off the bat that Villenueve’s adaptation (co-written by Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) is more formalized than Lynch’s; he doesn’t leave his cast as much room to ham it up and distract from the business at hand; but rather uses them like chess pieces.

On the plus side, this makes the plot easier to follow. On the downside, Villenueve runs into the same challenge Lynch faced: there are simply too many characters in Herbert’s novel and not enough time within the constraints of a feature film to give anyone an adequate enough backstory to make you care what happens to them.

The cast is led by Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, rising son of “good” Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson). By decree of the Emperor (of Space? Still unclear to me after a forgotten read and two films), the House of Atreides has been given stewardship of precious “spice” mining operations on the planet Arrakis.

This does not set well with the former dominant House on Arrakis, led by “bad” Duke Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, who appears to be channeling Lawrence Tierney in Tough Guys Don’t Dance). Duke Atreides’ new gig is further complicated by an insurgency of native “Fremen” (led by Javier Bardem, sans cattle prod) and ginormous worms.

I gave up comparing worm size in grade school, but Villenueve’s worms are more awesome than Lynch’s (there have been significant advancements in digital effects since 1984). Sadly, that’s the best thing I can say about Dune 2021 (or as I’ve nicknamed it, “Spice World 2”). It boasts impressive special effects and world-building, but otherwise, the film is a dramatically flat, somber affair with an abrupt “That’s it?!” denouement. I know sequels are in the works …but would it have killed them to give us a cliffhanger?

Dune” is currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max

13 songs the lord never taught us: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2021)

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I know what you’re thinking. Halloween is still 2 weeks off, but ’tis the season. Besides, “Halloween” is practically a 4th-quarter long celebration, if you count all the associated holidays…All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallows’ Eve El Dia de los Muertos, Ghost Festival, Guy Fawkes Night, Mischief/Devil’s/Hell’s Night (take your pick), and of course…Samhain. Whichever one(s) you may be celebrating this year-just remember: wear two masks. And if you’re short a DJ, may I offer a few frighteningly apropos suggestions for your party playlist?

ALICE COOPER: The Ballad of Dwight Frye – “I’ve gotta get OUTTA here!” A theatrical paean to the screen actor who played a bevy of loony tune characters, most notably  “Renfield” in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Just remember…”sleepin’ don’t come very easy, in a straight white vest.”

BAUHAUS: Bela Lugosi’s Dead – The Goth anthem. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” We get it.

CORRECTION: I have been informed by an astute reader that the refrain is “Undead, undead, undead.” I learn something new every day!

BLACK SABBATH: Black Sabbath– Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tritone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!“Talk about a mission statement.

PINK FLOYD: Careful With That Axe, Eugene – The Floyd’s most ominous dirge is basically an instrumental mood piece, but Roger Waters’ eerie shrieking  is the stuff of nightmares.

ATOMIC ROOSTER: Death Walks Behind You– “Lock the door, switch the light…you’ll be so afraid tonight.” A truly unnerving track from one of my favorite 70s British prog-rock bands.  Keyboardist Vincent Crane pulls double duty on this list; he had previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (below).

THE DAMNED: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– You know what they say: You’re never alone with a schizophrenic! Choice cut from the U.K. pop-punk band’s finest LP, The Black Album.

THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN: Fire- Yes, that Arthur Brown…heir to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the forefather of Alice Cooper, and most importantly, the god of hell fire!

THE CRAMPS: Goo Goo Muck–It would be sacrilege not to include the kings of Psychobilly.

I Put a Spell on You– This cat must have scared the living shit out of middle America, smack dab in the middle of the drab Eisenhower era. “Moohoohaha!

THE DOORS: Riders on the Storm – The first time I heard this song was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

VANILLA FUDGE: Season of the Witch– Donovan’s original version doesn’t hold a candle to this marvelously histrionic psychedelic train wreck.  Eat your heart out, Bill Shatner!

THE ROLLING STONES: Sympathy for the Devil- “Something always happens when we play this song.” Famous last words there from Mick Jagger in the 1970 rock doc Gimme Shelter, moments before the cameras (unknowingly, at time of filming) capture the fatal stabbing of an audience member.  Now that’s scary.

KING CRIMSON: 21st Century Schizoid Man– “Cat’s foot, iron claw, neurosurgeons scream for more…at paranoia’s poison door...”  And that’s  the most optimistic part of this song!

Bonus track!

LED ZEPPELIN: (backwards) Stairway to Heaven– Rumor has it there is a painting of Jimmy Page  going all to hell. If you believe in that sort of thing (there are two paths you can go by).

Pleasant dreams!

 

Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2021)

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What a long, strange trip it’s been. From my original review of the 2009 film Star Trek:

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather his 1000-yard stare.

It was a look that spoke volumes; a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely.

Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

Mr. Doohan has since slipped the surly bonds of Earth, both figuratively and literally:

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry is going where no man has gone before.

Part of his cremated remains will be sent into deep space, along with remains of his wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who appeared on Star Trek the Next Generation as Lwaxana Troi and voiced the computer on multiple Trek series.

Remains of James Doohan (Trek’s Scotty) and pioneering sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke will also be sent into orbit on a memorial flight from the Houston-based Celestis, reports NBC News.

The company, which has been putting remains into orbit for 16 years, will launch its Summerjammer Solar Sail Mission from Cape Cod in November 2014. This will be the first to enter into deep space, and the craft will orbit the sun between Earth and Venus.

Remains from Roddenberry and Doohan have been sent into space on previous Celestis flights. Summerjammer will be launched with an experimental solar sail from NASA, which it hopes will propel the craft with photons from the sun.

This morning, I was enjoying a bowl of instant oatmeal and watching CNN before heading to work, and happened to catch the countdown for the latest Blue Origin flight. I’ve been sort of half-paying attention to the hype surrounding this latest commercial stunt from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, because…that’s basically what it is (more like a glorified human cannonball act, as the spacecraft doesn’t actually go into orbit around the Earth).

That said, I unapologetically remain an original series Star Trek fan (I was 10 in 1966), so I thought it was cool that William Shatner was invited along for the ride (which would make him the first surviving member of the original Star Trek crew to make it into “real” space).

Then something unexpected happened. I started to choke up a little as the rocket took off.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

I think it was those childhood memories, plus seeing Captain Kirk going aloft, that got to me. And once I heard Shatner’s comments after he exited the capsule…I was a puddle:

What you’ve just given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I-I…it’s just extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so…so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t anything to do with the little green planet we all live in-it has to do with the enormity, and the quickness, and the suddenness of life and death. […] I can’t even begin to express…what I would love to do is communicate as much as possible the jeopardy…the vulnerability of everything. […] 50 miles [above Earth] and you’re in death. This is life and [pointing to the sky] that’s death…and in an instant [as you enter space] you go ‘Whoa …that’s death!’

How fragile we are. Godspeed, Planet Earth.

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2021)

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Well, better late than never:

President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.

The day will be observed Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. While Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples, Biden’s announcement appeared to catch many by surprise. […]

“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.

Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Native populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other wealth, including people to enslave.

“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

With that in mind, here are 10 worthwhile films in honor of Indigenous People’s Day.

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Arctic Son — I first saw this documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 film Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.

Stanley, Jr. was raised in Washington State by his single mom. Consequently, he is more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territories. The initially wary young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

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Dead Man — Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering (beautifully photographed by the late Robby Müller).

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with an enigmatic Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic quality. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

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The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the uproar and unsavory behavioral changes the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful community, Xi treks to “the edge of the world” to give the troublesome object back to the gods. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in an endearing fashion.

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies.

A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

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

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

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

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

Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.

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

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Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David  Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can.

Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.