Charlie is our darling: A tribute

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in rhythm, Mr. Watts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

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

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

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

Pray for peace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were they thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and one more thing

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

Indiana wants me: Whelm (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 31, 2021)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

This coming Friday marks the 76th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

What with the rapidly-mutating COVID-19 virus, record heat waves in the U.S., and flooding in Europe I’d all but forgotten that every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock. In January of 2020, they determined that it was “100 seconds to Midnight” (those seem like such carefree and happy days now…when our only worry was complete nuclear annihilation).

So how are we doing now?

Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.

As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly.

Though lethal on a massive scale, this particular pandemic is not an existential threat. Its consequences are grave and will be lasting. But COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers—including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare—that could threaten civilization in the near future. […]

As we noted in our last Doomsday Clock statement, the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have intensified in recent years because of a threat multiplier: the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend. Here, again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. False and misleading information disseminated over the internet—including misrepresentation of COVID-19’s seriousness, promotion of false cures, and politicization of low-cost protective measures such as face masks—created social chaos in many countries and led to unnecessary death. This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens. […]

C’mon guys…can you at least throw us a bone, here…?

Considered by themselves, these negative events in the nuclear, climate change, and disinformation arenas might justify moving the clock closer to midnight. But amid the gloom, we see some positive developments. The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems. For example, the United States has already announced it is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia for five years. In the context of a post-pandemic return to relative stability, more such demonstrations of renewed interest in and respect for science and multilateral cooperation could create the basis for a safer and saner world.

Because these developments have not yet yielded substantive progress toward a safer world, they are not sufficient to move the Clock away from midnight. But they are positive and do weigh against the profound dangers of institutional decay, science denialism, aggressive nuclear postures, and disinformation campaigns discussed in our 2020 statement. The members of the Science and Security Board therefore set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse and the same time we set in 2020. It is deeply unfortunate that the global response to the pandemic over the past year has explicitly validated many of the concerns we have voiced for decades.

OK. Some cautious optimism. But nuclear proliferation itself is so last century…right?

In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die. Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate, while destabilizing “advances” in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defenses continued. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use. There continues to be an extraordinary disregard for the potential of an accidental nuclear war, even as well-documented examples of frighteningly close calls have emerged.

Oh, crap. Anyway…with those happy thoughts in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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

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

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era (Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project, John Badham’s War Games, et. al.)

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but Duigan capably juggles this mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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

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

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

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

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Mostly dead: Here After (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

After all, you know, there are worse things in life than death. I mean, if you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know exactly what I mean.

– Woody Allen (screenplay), Love and Death

Comedian: Well, there’s a nice-looking young man over there. Hi, how’d ya die?

Daniel Miller: On stage, like you.

– Albert Brooks (screenplay), Defending Your Life

I think it is safe to say that Life’s greatest mystery is “what happens to us when we die?” As the dead remain irritatingly consistent in shedding absolutely no light on this matter, theologians, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers and erm…insurance salesmen have had carte blanche to mine the associative uncertainties and anxieties; proselytizing, theorizing, philosophizing, or fantasizing about possible scenarios (as of this writing only the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” part can be confirmed).

Writer-director Harry Greenberger’s seriocomic romantic fantasy Here After is the latest entry in a venerable genre that took firm root in the 1940s with films like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), although I sense it’s more directly influenced by (relatively) contemporary fare like Made in Heaven (1987), Wings of Desire (1987), Ghost (1990) and Defending Your Life (1991).

So the dead guy getting his “second chance” here is a starving NYC-based actor named Michael (Andy Karl). After creating a public scene breaking up with his girlfriend in an airport terminal, he hops in his car and races onto the thruway in a fit of pique. A textbook case of distracted driving puts him on a (literal) collision course with Destiny.

When Michael comes to, he’s in a high-rise executive-style office with a commanding view of New York City (or a spectral facsimile thereof) and face to face with an ethereal woman (Christina Ricci) who matter-of-factually informs him of his unfortunate demise. He’s dead, but not quite ready to continue to his final destination. This is, of course, quite a lot for Michael to take in. Ricci proceeds to lay down the ground rules of his purgatory.

He is in what some might call a “special hell” (of sorts) reserved exclusively for single New Yorkers who check out before finding their soul mate (they only “go” in pairs, she tells him). Michael is tasked to “return” to the city, where he will be given a limited amount of time to find a nice dead girl to spend eternity with (how many times have we heard that story?).

He can’t see the living, nor can they see him. However, like Haley Joel Osment, he sees dead people. Initially, he can’t figure why they rudely ignore him when he tries to engage anyone in conversation, until one of them takes pity on the newbie and points out being dead doesn’t change the fact that they are still New Yorkers (it’s one of the funniest exchanges in the film).

On a hunch, Michael looks up a late friend (played with scuzzy aplomb by Michael Rispoli of The Sopranos), who advises him on the dating dos and don’ts for the afterlife. When Michael finally does meet “the one” (French actress Nora Arnezeder) …she’s a living person (don’t ask).

Despite some unevenness (a dark subplot involving a psycho stalker feels incongruous) Greenberger has fashioned a (mostly) charming tale with appealing leads and a good supporting cast (it was a pleasant surprise to see Jeannie Berlin pop up in a brief scene as Michael’s mom). I like Greenberger’s choices for the soundtrack, particularly his use of “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” by Jefferson Starship in a lovely interlude.If you’re looking for light midsummer popcorn escapism without capes and Spandex, Here After may be your ticket to heaven.

Blu-ray reissue: Nightmare Alley (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Nightmare Alley (The Criterion Collection)

“How can a guy get so low?” Even within the dark recesses of film noir, this cynical 1947 entry is about as “low” as you can get. Directed by Edmund Goulding and adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, the film was a career gamble for star Tyrone Power, who really sinks his teeth into the role of carny-barker-turned “mentalist” Stanton Carlisle.

Utilizing his innate charm and good looks, the ambitious Carlise ingratiates himself with a veteran carnival mind-reader (Joan Blondell). Once he finagles a few tricks of the trade from her, he woos a hot young sideshow performer (Coleen Gray) and talks her into partnering up to develop their own mentalist act.

The newlyweds find success on the nightclub circuit, but the ever-scheming Carlisle soon sees an opportunity to play a long con with a potentially big payoff. To pull this off, he seeks the assistance of a local shrink (Helen Walker). While not immune to Carlisle’s charms, she is not going to be an easy pushover like the other women in his life. Big trouble ahead…and a race back to the bottom.

The film was considered such a downer that 20th-Century Fox all but buried it following its first run. In addition, legal tangles barred it from being reissued in any home video format until a 2005 DVD release (I was one of those noir geeks who literally jumped for joy when I heard the glorious news).

Criterion makes it go to “11” with its new 4K digital restoration and audio upgrade. Extras include new interviews with critic Imogen Sara Smith and performer and historian Todd Robbins. The commentary track from the 2005 DVD by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver has been ported over to this edition as well.

Blu-ray reissue: The Krays (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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The Krays (Second Sight Films; Region “B” locked)

“Mummy loves you, you little monsters.” Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic about England’s notorious Kray brothers is a unique hybrid of a “gangster movie” and a “woman’s film”.

First-time actors Gary and Martin Kemp (also known as the guitarist and bassist for Spandau Ballet) are nothing short of astonishing as Ronald and Reggie Kray, the fearsome East End gangsters who ruled London’s underworld in the 1960s-but it is playwright Samuel Beckett’s favorite leading lady Billie Whitelaw who really owns the film as the twins’ beloved Mum, Violet.

Born in 1933, the twins form an unusually intense, almost psychic lifelong bond with their mother that pushes their older brother Charlie and milquetoast father to the background. To say that this non-shrinking Violet is a “force of nature” is understatement. She loves her “boys” but suffers no fools gladly.

What is most interesting to me about Philip Ridley’s sharp screenplay is how many juicy monologues it contains for a number of strong female characters (again, something you don’t usually see in such traditionally male-centric gangster flicks). This observation is delivered by Violet’s friend Rose (played by Susan Fleetwood):

It was the women who had the war – the real war. The women were left at home in the shit, not sitting in some sparkling plane or gleaming tank […] Men! Mum’s right. They stay kids all their fucking lives. And they end up heroes – or monsters. Either way they win. Women have to grow up. If *they* stay children, they become victims.

Make no mistake, when the film goes gangster, it goes all the way. In fact, Medak received criticism for scenes of brutality (the Krays had an oddly anachronistic predilection for using swords to torture and/or dispense with their rivals).

While those scenes are gruesome, as director Medak points out in a new interview conducted for the Blu-ray there is much less violence in The Krays than you see in a typical American mob film (interestingly, Medak and Whitelaw knew the Krays).

I think this is an underrated gem ripe for discovery by a new audience (it’s far more compelling than the muddled 2015 Krays biopic Legend, with Tom Hardy playing the twins).

Second Sight Films does a great job on the restoration and image transfer. I have a minor quibble on the audio; it’s very clean and crisp, but I had to use subtitles because I got tired of having to ride my volume control (while the annoying fluctuations between hushed dialog and blaring action scenes/music cues are a given in contemporary films, for the life of me I don’t know why reissue studios are compelled to go for that same dynamic when remixing audio tracks of older films).

In addition to the aforementioned interview with the director, extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Scott Harrison, a new interview with producer Ray Burdis, and a softcover book with several new essays.

Blu-ray reissue: Mirror (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Mirror (The Criterion Collection)

Forgive me as I draw the chalk backwards (shameless middlebrow that I am) but watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 drama for the first time made me reassess my cheeky 2011 review of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. My opinion of Malick’s film hasn’t changed, but I can now state with confidence that I “get” what he was aiming for (also see: my review of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog).

In my experience, Tarkovsky’s films (Solaris, Stalker, Ivan’s Childhood, The Sacrifice, et.al.) are a wash the first time I see them but gain resonance upon repeat viewings. Yes, that’s a long-winded way of saying they are “challenging”. On reflection (sorry), Mirror is the most challenging of all; perhaps because it is Tarkovsky’s most personal statement.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Upon its initial release, Mirror received cheeky reviews from Soviet critics, who dismissed it as too obscure and self-indulgent. However, history has been kinder regarding this journey to the center of Tarkovsky’s mind. The film plays like a mashup of Amarcord, Wild Strawberries, and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge; equal parts personal memoir, history lesson and postcards from the subconscious.

Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a new 2K digital restoration, which enhances an already visually stunning film. Extras include The Dream in the Mirror, an absorbing new documentary by Louise Milne and Seán Martin that lends thoughtful context to the more enigmatic elements of the film, and Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, a 2019 documentary by his son Andrei A. Tarkovsky (which I haven’t had a chance to view yet).

Blu-ray reissue: Five (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Five (Imprint Films; region-free)

Writer-director Arch Oboler’s 1951 film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as “seminal” Cold War era nuclear survivor dramas like On the Beach, Panic in the Year Zero, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil-but it predates them all by at least a decade. Despite its low budget, no-name cast and relative obscurity, Five is Oboler’s magnum opus (especially compared to the rest of his oeuvre, which is largely comprised of psychotronic fare like Bwana Devil, The Twonky, and The Bubble).

The setup is familiar; a handful of survivors from disparate sociopolitical and ethnic backgrounds find each other after a nuclear holocaust. They end up living together in an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house on a California mountaintop. It doesn’t take long for the joy of newfound camaraderie and spirit of egalitarianism to wane, as the story becomes a cautionary parable a la Animal Farm.

When I re-watched the film recently, I was surprised at how relevant certain elements are to our current political climate (particularly when one survivor outs himself as a fascistic white supremacist-which begs comparisons to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat). Oboler’s choice of exterior locales is imaginative (e.g., a haunting scene that features characters wandering through a devastated cityscape is quite effective and belies the modest $75,000 budget).

Image and sound on the Imprint Films Blu-ray displays a marked improvement over the Sony Pictures DVD. The new commentary track with film critic Glenn Erickson and Oboler expert Matthew Rovner is packed with insightful observations and fascinating trivia about the making of the film. There is also an engaging 25-minute video essay by journalist and film critic Kim Newman, who sheds light on Oboler’s earlier career producing radio dramas in the 1940s. A must-have for the “post-apocalyptic” completist.