Category Archives: Art world

Blu-ray Reissue: Mystery of the Wax Museum [1933] (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mystery of the Wax Museum – Warner Archive Collection

“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 film was considered “lost” until a lone, worn out print was discovered around 1970. It was originally filmed in the long-defunct Two-Color Technicolor process, adding to the challenge of an accurate restoration. Thank the gods for the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Foundation, who tackled the project with their usual aplomb (with a little sugar from the George Lucas Family Foundation). The result is a glorious print that will make buffs wax poetic (sorry). Extras include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray.

I’m Not There: Notes from Tribeca 2020

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reviews: The Edge of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

For more info check out the Tribeca Film Festival website.

Blu-ray reissue: Backbeat (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Backbeat – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in their slick suits didn’t just pop out of Liverpool fully formed as such; they had already paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints. The most formative (and tumultuous) time for the band was the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period”, a series of gigs in Germany from 1960-1962.

Iain Softley’s 1994 drama is set during this period and lasers in on the close, volatile friendship between John Lennon (Ian Hart) and original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliff (Stephen Dorff). The film also delves into Sutcliff’s star-crossed relationship with a beautiful German hipster named Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who is credited for inspiring the band’s signature “mop top” haircuts. Kircherr also encouraged Sutcliff to pursue his painting (he was much more accomplished as an artist than as a musician). Absorbing take on a fascinating and bittersweet chapter of the band’s history, with sensitive acting and direction.

Shout! Factory’s 2K transfer is sharp and audio is dynamic. Extras include commentary track by Iain Softley, Ian Hart, and Stephen Dorff.

SIFF 2019: This is Not Berlin (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17 year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

SIFF 2019: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Just when I thought I knew everything about the Warhol Factory scene, this fascinating documentary introduces an overlooked player. Barbara Rubin was a Zelig-like character who moved to NYC at 18, became enmeshed with some of the era’s most culturally significant artists…then became one herself as a pioneering feminist filmmaker. And many years before Madonna dabbled in Kabbalah culture, Rubin embraced it full-bore, taking the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox Jewish community head on while re-inventing herself.

She’s gotta have it: Let the Sunshine In (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2018)

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In one scene from Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, several people take a country stroll. One of them stops and says, “What fascinates me is that this landscape is…nothing. Shapes, colors, a sunbeam. Yet it becomes part of us, and does us good. It’s totally intact. It’s rare. Nature that looks like nature.”

That may sound like dime store profundity, but if you apply the same observation to acting, it gains depth. After all, the best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character (shapes and colors) and some proper lighting (a sunbeam), and they will give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. Binoche is not required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by the director and Christine Angot), but her character does speak copiously about love; love in all its guises: erotic, affectionate, familiar, playful, obsessive, enduring, self, and selfless.

She also makes a lot of love (I don’t judge. I merely observe and report). Her character, a Parisian painter named Isabelle, is a divorcee on the rebound. She’s looking for love in all the usual places, yet not settling for any one suitor. She’s pretty sure she knows what she wants, but she’s not 100% sure she really needs it (or has at least been around the block enough times to remain wary). That said, an inordinate number of her lovers happen to be married; and we know that scenario frequently ends in tears. So-what gives?

You may think you know how this is all going to turn out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. It’s also quite amusing at times; with a casual eroticism that reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1986 film Betty Blue. Granted, Isabelle isn’t quite as off the rails as poor Betty, but she has issues (perhaps she is closer to Cate Blanchett’s character in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).

There is even an echo of Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge in an extraordinary (and unexpected) denouement featuring Gerard Depardieu (I won’t spoil it for you). One thing I will tell you is that you won’t be able to take your eyes off Binoche; she gives it her all in a bravura performance.

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2017)

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If I liken the experience of watching Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film Loving Vincent as akin to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I am only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life.

It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a meticulously oil-painted frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature. The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise.

Our “detective” is Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of an Arles postman (Chris O’Dowd). A year after van Gogh’s suspicious death, Armand’s father entrusts his son with an undelivered letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Armand sets off to the bucolic countryside of Avers-sur-Oise that inspired many of van Gogh’s best paintings. As he encounters an ever-growing cast of characters ranging from the periphery to the inner circle of van Gogh’s daily life, Armand’s journey becomes a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts and contradictory impressions regarding the artist’s final chapter.

While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is handily the most visually resplendent one that I have seen. The film represents a 10-year labor of love by the filmmakers, who employed more than 100 artists to help achieve their vision…and it’s all up there on the screen. The narrative, however, is more on the “sketchy” side, if you know what I’m saying (I’m here all week).

Still, the film teasingly offers up some counter-myths to the conventional narrative that van Gogh was another tortured artist who had no choice but to check out early because he was just too damn sensitive for this cruel and unfeeling world. Maybe he wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger…hmm?

Granted, considering he produced 800 paintings (many considered priceless masterpieces) yet sold only one during his lifetime, and struggled with mental illness, it’s not like he didn’t have reasons to be depressed, but who can say with 100% certainty that there really was no hope left in sight, on that starry, starry night? I’d wager the answer lies on his canvasses; because every picture tells a story…don’t it?

SIFF 2017: Endless Poetry ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral.

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

Love & Death in the 21st Century: Honeyglue **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2016)

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And maybe love is just letting people be just what they want to be               The door must always be left unlocked

 -from “What is Love”, written by Howard Jones

In the opening of writer-director James Bird’s melodrama Honeyglue, an attractive, gender-fluid young man breaks the ice with an attractive young woman on a dance floor with an original pickup line: “What are you?” To which the young woman replies, “What do you mean, what am I?” The young man counters with “Are you a dragonfly?” “I look like an insect?” she asks, not sure whether she’s being pranked. “Like a dragonfly,” he answers with a smile. Then she turns the tables. “Are you a guy?” she asks. “As opposed to what?” the young man answers with a defensive tone. “As opposed to a girl,” she says. “What do you prefer I be?” he asks. “I mean…are you gay?” she asks this time, hastily  adding  “It’s OK if you are”  as an afterthought. “You ask a lot of questions,” he says, then stalks away into the crowd.

And if you’re thinking that marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship (with benefits), you would be correct (and/or you’ve seen one or two formula mumble core indie flicks). That is not to suggest that Honeyglue is a wholly unoriginal film; as far as formula mumble core indie flicks go, you could do a lot worse. And once you toss a few venerable Disease of the Week Hollywood clichés to the mix, you at least get an interesting hybrid.

The most compelling element of the film is the two romantic leads. Adriana Mather gives a resonant and touching performance as Morgan, a suburban princess who falls in love with streetwise club kid Jordan (Zach Villa, also quite good). Unfortunately, the work by the remainder of the cast is wildly uneven. In fact, one performance is so downright godawful that it becomes a distraction; however as I see that this (hitherto unfamiliar to me) thespian has 99 credits listed on IMDB and is “an award-winning Canadian actor”, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that it could be chalked up to miscasting.

Still, despite the screenplay’s clumsy mashup of Now, Voyager with The Crying Game, occasional forays into Love Story-worthy mawkishness and tendency to have its characters spout Hallmark Card platitudes at each other, there remains a stubborn streak of sincerity and goodwill (bolstered by the earnestness of the two young leads), just palpable enough to keep sentimental souls (honey) glued right through to its inevitable four-hanky denouement. And arriving as it does in theaters literally right on the heels of the recent evil mayhem in Orlando, the film’s core message, that Love (gender-defying or otherwise) trumps not only Hate, but perhaps even Death itself, could not be any timelier.