Category Archives: Biopic

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

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If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

The filth and the funny: Dolemite Is My Name (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2019)

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When I was in the 6th Grade at Ft. Wainwright Junior High in Alaska, everyone in class was assigned to choose, memorize and recite a Robert Service poem (I’m assuming this is a uniquely Alaskan rite of passage…although I can’t speak for public school traditions in the Yukon Territories). As most Robert Service poems go on longer than the Old Testament, this is not a casual assignment. My choice… “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

Then his lips went in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell…and that one is Dan McGrew.”

There’s a lot more to it, involving a gal named Lou and how this miner dude (“fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear”) gallivants into the local saloon like Rocky Racoon lookin’ for trouble but I think I probably chose it because it gave me an opportunity to work “blue” in front of the class without being admonished by the teacher.

Flash-forward to my junior year of high school. Specifically, that is when I bought an LP called Dolemite for President completely on a whim (OK…the somewhat prurient nature of the album cover and the fact that they kept it behind the counter may have initially piqued my interest). I was also really into comedy albums at the time, and the record store clerk assured me that this obscure comic Rudy Ray Moore was a laugh riot.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I smuggled it home (I definitely did not want my parents to see the album cover, and intuitively figured it would be wise to listen with headphones). The track list was intriguing; with cuts like “Dance of the Freaks”, “Farting Contest”, “Long Island Duck”, “Sit in Your Mama’s Lap” (you can ah…Google the rest).

Side 1 opens with Moore in character as presidential hopeful “Dolemite”, who gives an expletive-laden campaign speech touting his (very!) progressive platform (inspiration for Bullworth?) From a stylistic standpoint it was a fairly standard-issue standup monologue.

But the next cut, “Stack-A-Lee”, was…poetry.

Billy said “Stack? You’re takin’ my money, so get on your knees and pray
With your life…you’re gonna have to pay.”
Stack said “Billy…are you for real? I want you to listen, and listen well
I’m the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell!”

I wasn’t able to contextualize “why” at the time, but it somehow reminded me of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (although, the miner loaded for bear didn’t refer to himself as “the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell” while calling out Dan Mcgrew).

Most bits on the album turned out to be in rhymes. Filthy, dirty rhymes. I laughed and laughed and became a Rudy Ray Moore fan. He was fresh and original; and his incorporation of long-form verse was more developed than “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” Like Redd Foxx meets The Last Poets (or Robert Service with Tourette’s).

Flash-forward 47 years (jeezus) and I’m doing background research for my review of the 2019 Moore biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. I was surprised to learn from the film that Moore’s rhyming style was not 100% “original”, after all. Rather, it was rooted in an African American oral tradition called “toasting” (not to be confused with “Here’s to your health!”). I came across this enlightening 2004 University at Buffalo news release:

“Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition,” a book collected and compiled by SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson of the University at Buffalo, is back for a second go ’round. […]

The book collects a popular form of African American literature and folk poetry known as “toasts.” For 30 years, it carried the reputation of a “stone cold classic,” mightily praised by critics, cultural historians, musicians, poets and general-interest readers alike. The book includes a new CD of Jackson’s original field recording of the toasts in the book.

“Toasts are just one aspect of a rich tradition of verbal arts in black culture,” Jackson says. “Public performance of rhyming verse has ancient African roots. And we see it now in rap and hip-hop, which are a mix of African American, Caribbean and several other traditions.

“Toasts are the starting point for rap,” he says, “both in the poetry itself and the way it was used and performed in public situations. As the novelist and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed says, if you want to understand rap and hip-hop, you’ve got to understand toasts.”

The toasts featured in the book, says Jackson, come from various sources, including street corners, barber shops, bars and jails — “places young men hang around without much to do.”

Although Jackson says the stories told in these works can be personal and intimate — and he has heard blues lyrics and Robert Service poems recited as toasts — they generally celebrate a number of folkloric figures from African-American culture like “Stackolee,” the famed bad man said to have murdered a guy over a Stetson hat […]

Hmm. After reading that, I dug deeper. The first documented reference to a song called “Stack-a-Lee” (by “Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano-thumper”) was in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald in 1897. Robert Service published “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in 1907.

I don’t hold a degree in ethnomusicology or poetry, but it does raise a tantalizing possibility that Service, like Rudy Ray Moore, could have been inspired by traditional African-American toasts (all I have to do is tell the truth …and no one ever believes me).

Not that the subject of Robert Service (or his poems) ever arises in Dolemite Is My Name (running concurrently in theaters and on Netflix), but the film does impart everything you ever wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about the late cult comedian and filmmaker.

The film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a Moore biopic to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety.

Circa 1970, Moore begins to take “professional” interest in the storytelling skills of Ricco (Ron Cephus Jones) a wino who habitually panhandles at the record store. Ricco regales anyone who has change jangling in their pockets with the raunchy misadventures of a fictional pimp/badass named “Dolemite”. Ricco delivers his tales in the form of rhymes.

This gives Moore an epiphany; he dry-runs the “Dolemite” persona on stage one night, replete with pimp regalia, street attitude, and nasty toasts, and to his delight the audience eats it up. Word-of-mouth spreads, and the new-and-improved act makes him a local hit.

To capitalize on the unexpected career surge, Moore next sets sights on making “party records” that would surpass even the bawdiness of Redd Foxx, who at the time was one of the most popular “blue” acts that was releasing “adults only” comedy albums (although it’s not mentioned in the film, Moore had already released three traditional comedy LPs between 1959 and 1964). As he was still a relative unknown quantity outside of the African American community, Moore initially had to go the D.I.Y. route.

Once he was able to gain a wider fan base from his records, Moore decided to take it to the next logical step…the movies. The final two-thirds of Dolemite Is My Name focuses on the making of Moore’s first independent film, which was called (wait for it) Dolemite.

Bereft of studio backing or deep-pocketed investors, Moore finagles an abandoned L.A. hotel as a sound stage. He assembles a mostly amateur cast, hires some UCLA film students as crew, enlists a black consciousness-woke playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) as screenwriter, and sweet-talks an actor with some Hollywood credits named D’Urville Martin to be his director (played by a scenery-chewing Wesley Snipes).

Moore casts himself as the film’s eponymous hero, a kung-fu fighting badass pimp (this was the peak of the “blaxploitation” era, in case you hadn’t picked up on that) and his stage act partner/comedy foil Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as his leading lady (made on a shoestring in 1975, every bit of Dolemite’s lack of funding and/or film-making prowess showed on the screen; nonetheless it did find an audience and became a surprise cult hit).

I was getting a strong whiff of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood while watching Brewer’s film. It immediately became clear as to “why” when I looked up Alexander and Karaszewski’s screenwriting credits and discovered Ed Wood to be among them (I’m a little slow sometimes-but I’m nothing if not intuitive).

While it doesn’t tell the complete story of Moore’s life, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.

Mind you, I wouldn’t file it under “good clean family fun”,  but Dolemite Is My Name is nonetheless an entertaining, upbeat, and affectionate portrait you won’t need to hide from your parents.

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 Kircherr (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.

I never sang for my father: Rocketman (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2019)

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So…Baz Luhrmann, Ken Russell, and Bob Fosse walk into a bar. Out pops Rocketman, an unabashedly over-the-top biopic about an unabashedly over-the-top superstar. And considering that it’s been unabashedly executive produced by said over-the-top superstar, it is surprisingly not so much a vanity piece as it is a self-abasing confessional.

With lots of singing, dancing, and jazz hands.

The eponymous astro-powered gentleman is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, aka Sir Elton Hercules John…pianist, singer-songwriter, balladeer, glam-rocker, pop star, composer, and a man prone (at times in his life) to drug-alcohol-sex-food and/or shopping addiction.

It is the latter iteration (a walking gestalt of coked-out, fucked-silly, booze-soaked, self-absorbed and over-pampered rock star excess) that the director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody) and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) present as the film opens.

In case we don’t glean that this troubled, troubled man is about to face his inner demons by going full confessional at an addict recovery meeting, Elton (Taron Egerton) makes a grand entrance with a world-weary plod down a long hallway, bedecked in a devil costume that recalls Tim Curry’s Mephistophelian creature in Legend. He looks…unwell.

The support group device is a launch pad; a flashback-generator enabling rocket man to blast off into inner space, access his drug-addled memory banks and reassess his life as a mashup of kitchen sink drama, lurid soap, Fosse musical and MTV video (fasten your seat belts, check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…it’s gonna be a bumpy night).

Rocket man’s earliest recollections roil through his psyche. We observe young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) constantly vying for attention from his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father (Steven Mackintosh). But alas, it is for naught; Dad is cold and distant as the moon and Mum is vain and self-absorbed (in one telling scene, Reggie is traumatized when he stumbles upon Mum and future stepdad having a shag in the back seat of a car).

In fact, it is his Gran (Gemma Jones) who becomes his nurturer (in real life, John was raised by his maternal grandparents). She is the one who encourages her daughter to invest in piano lessons for Reggie when he begins to demonstrate a natural ear for music early on (his Dad, despite being a trumpet player and a jazz fanatic, is oddly ambivalent).

[SFX: phonograph needle ripping across vinyl] A quick note, before I proceed. If you are a stickler for linear timelines, 100% historical accuracy, and such-abort this mission now. As I noted in my review of Fletcher (and Bryan Singer’s) biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody:

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So, when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So, I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

And so, I was fully prepared, and therefore did not flinch (okay maybe I did twitch once or twice) when, for example, pre- “Elton” Reginald and his band launched into “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” a decade before he and Bernie Taupin actually co-wrote it.

Steel yourself for these anachronisms; a good portion of the songs are chosen to fit the scene, rather than the actual historical timeline. That said, since we’re (largely) talking the Elton John/Bernie Taupin catalog here…one could do worse for a movie soundtrack.

This turns out to be an effective device. For example, in my favorite music vignette, wherein Elton debuts the finished version of “Your Song” for writing partner Bernie (Jamie Bell), it lends a completely new and emotionally resonant subtext to a familiar tune. While I’ve heard the song 100s of times over the years, I’ve never considered the possibility (as the scene infers) that it’s Bernie’s way of telling Elton he loves him, but “just not like that” (which Bernie says to Elton, whilst gently deflecting a romantic pass).

My gift is my song
And this one’s for you

(Elton’s 2019 net worth is $500 million…a loving “gift” indeed, in the fullness of time).

In case you were wondering, not all of Elton’s romantic overtures are deflected; the film is open and honest regarding his sexuality. There is no “straight-washing” (which was a bone of contention regarding Fletcher and Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody). So, if Aunt Mabel is an Elton fan but maybe a little conservative, just a caveat that she is going to get the truth, the whole truth, and…oh fuck it. There’s gay sex, alright? Bring her-she’ll deal.

The film is fueled by Egerton’s knockout performance, which obfuscates a few “backstage drama” clichés. He’s also a terrific singer. He doesn’t mimic Elton’s voice, but does capture his essence (most of the songs are truncated or reconstructed anyway). Ultimately, it’s more musical fantasy than biopic. For just the facts, ma’am…read the Wiki entry. But if you’re up for singing, dancing and jazz hands…you’ll dig Rocketman.

Often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams: Wild Nights With Emily (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2019)

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Do you like poetry? Do you like song mashups? Here’s an interesting mashup for you:

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Just for one moment –
Hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

Two of those verses are taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson (circa 1861). The other two verses are lyrics from a Joy Division song (circa 1980). Can you tell which is which?

Well…if you are more cultured than I (which is highly likely) or know anything about poetry (which would be more than I know) it’s plain as the nose on your face that verses 1 and 3 are from a 19th-Century poem, and verses 2 and 4 come from a 20th-Century song.

I made this association while conducting extensive background research for my review of Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily (OK, I Googled “Emily Dickinson poems”, and that was one of the first search results. Happy now?). I was struck by Ms. Dickinson’s magnificently dark and timeless…Goth-iness. I mean “Wrecked, solitary, here”? I could totally hear (the wrecked, solitary, and late) Ian Curtis crooning the words.

Who was this intriguing woman of letters who toiled in relative obscurity for the 55 years she strolled the planet (1830-1886), seeing only a dozen or so of her 1,800 poems published during her life, but is now revered and studied and mentioned in the same breath as Whitman, Frost and Eliot? Was she really (as legend has it) the brooding, agoraphobic spinster who wears a Mona Lisa expression in that lone Daguerreotype portrait-or did she feel life was a banquet, and most poor suckers were starving to death?

Luckily for those of us who flee in terror at the prospect of sitting through a scholarly cinematic treatise soaking in the mannered trappings of a genre that a longtime friend of mine dismisses with a snort as “hat movies”, Olnek concocts kind of a mashup herself by mixing material from Dickinson’s poems and private letters with a touch of spirited speculation regarding details of her private life (think of it as well-researched fan fiction).

This lighter tone is assured by casting SNL veteran and comic actor Molly Shannon, who tackles the lead role with much aplomb. Her performance suggests an Emily Dickinson who indeed may have spent most of her adult life house-bound and somewhat socially isolated, but perhaps not so completely bereft of passion and joy as historically portrayed.

Most of that passion and joy manifests itself in the scenes depicting Emily’s longtime “close friendship” with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler), the woman who some biographers and historians have theorized to be the key romantic figure in Dickinson’s life; confidant, mentor, muse, and (assumed) secret lover. This is complicated by the fact they live next door to each other (at least in the film), adding door-slamming “Oh no! Your husband/my brother is home early-get dressed!” bedroom farce to the proceedings.

There are echoes of Comedy Central’s costume drama parody Another Period throughout, exacerbated by an appearance from Brett Gelman-one of that show’s more recognizable cast members. Gelman does a nice turn as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an early advocate of women’s rights and prominent staff member of The Atlantic Monthly who was a mentor (of sorts) to Dickinson (oddly, even though they formed a long friendship and exchanged many letters-he never pushed her hard to get published while she was still alive; but he did co-edit the first two posthumous collections of her poems).

Another key figure in Emily’s orbit is Mabel Loomis Todd (well-played by Amy Seimetz). Mabel is an interesting character; the de facto heavy of the piece, she also serves as the film’s narrator. Mabel Todd was the longtime mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who (if you’ve been paying attention) was married to Susan, Emily’s longtime secret lover. Todd was also an editor and writer, who ended up co-editing the aforementioned posthumous collections of Dickinson’s poems with Thomas Higginson (which is a bit weird considering that Emily and Mabel never met in person).

This is about as far from an Oscar-baiting prestige biopic one can get, but as movies about writers and poets are a hard-sell to begin with (not enough explosions, car chases, CGI characters or Marvel superheroes to capture the general movie-going public’s attention) Olnek made a wise choice to think outside the box. Wild Nights with Emily may not be the flashiest film in theaters now, but it’s the only one with poetry in its soul.

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In the lap of the gods: Bohemian Rhapsody (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2018)

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One of my favorite scenes in the BBC-TV series I Claudius takes place in a library, where aspiring historian Claudius encounters two scholars whom he admires. When Claudius diplomatically says they are the “two greatest” historians, it gets awkward fast:

(excerpted from the teleplay by Jack Pulman)

Pollio: Well, there can’t be two greatest. That’s just shilly-shallying, apart from being an abuse of the Roman tongue. So, you will have to choose. Which one of us would you rather read?

 Livy: Oh come Pollio, that’s not fair.

 Pollio: Nonsense. The lad’s obviously intelligent. So, speak up, boy. Which of us would you rather read?

 Claudius: Well, it d-d-depends, sir.

 Pollio: Ah, intelligent, but cowardly.

 Claudius: No. I mean, it depends on what I’m reading for. For b-beauty of language I would read L-Livy, and for interpretation of fact I would read P-P-Pollio.

 Livy: [indignantly] Now you please neither of us and that’s always a mistake!

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated Bohemian Rhapsody, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

In the remote case you are unaware, the film dramatizes the story of Queen, one of the most successful rock acts of all time. The film’s title is taken from one of their most recognizable songs, guaranteed to be playing soon on your local classic rock FM station (tune in-it will play within an hour or so, or it will be sampled in a station sweeper mandated by law to include “Money” by Pink Floyd and “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin).

You are likely aware that there has been a kerfuffle or two regarding this film. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury but walked out over creative differences with producers. Credited director Singer was booted off the project by the studio while it was still in production (he was replaced by uncredited Dexter Fletcher). Then there was social media outcry in wake of the teaser trailer, which some members of the LBGTQ community felt “straight-washed” Mercury’s sexual orientation.

Talk about performance pressure.

The film opens with a Scorsese-style tracking shot following Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he energetically works his way from backstage to enter the mainstage at London’s Wembley Stadium where an excited throng of humanity awaits. It’s July of 1985, and Queen is about to deliver their now-legendary performance as part of Bob Geldof’s massive Live-Aid benefit concert to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.

Adhering to the Golden Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll Biopics, this is but a framing device-and a cue to abruptly cut away from this moment of triumph to embark on a 2-hour flashback showing How We Got Here (spoiler alert-the time loop eventually reconnects with 1985).

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay proceeds from there in a fairly standard by-the-numbers fashion, beginning in early ‘70s London, which is when and where baggage handler, rock superfan and later-to-be-christened “Freddie Mercury” (née Farrokh Bulsara) joins his favorite band Smile after their bassist/lead vocalist quits. With Farrokh, new bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzelo), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) now in place, Smile is all set to morph into the classic Queen lineup.

Theirs was not an overnight success; it wasn’t until 1973 that they found themselves in a position to record their first proper album. The film depicts the band scrambling to find their voice in these first forays in the recording studio; working out the basic rudiments of what would eventually become the band’s signature formula of proggy neo-classical melodies meets heavy metal riffing, topped off by intricate harmony vocal arrangements.

The band’s 1974 sophomore album Queen II and its follow-up Sheer Heart Attack (same year!) were actually more significant in terms of sales and career-building, but the filmmakers curiously skip over this crucial transition period of substantive creative progression and jump into the sessions for 1975’s international hit A Night at the Opera.

It’s in these scenes, where the band becomes ensconced in the studios that the film really came alive for me; then again, I’m a sucker for fly-on-the-wall peeks at creative process.

Unfortunately, the film falls flat whenever it takes soap-opera excursions into Freddie Mercury’s personal life. I don’t fault the actors; Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker each give it their best shot as Mercury’s longtime girlfriend Mary Austin and male lover Jim Hutton, respectively and Malek’s completely committed portrayal never falters (although I was initially distracted by his uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger early in the film).

In case you were wondering, they do address his sexuality (as well as the AIDS that took him from us; although they inexplicably alter the timeline as to when he was diagnosed).

To millions of fans, Queen “was” Freddie Mercury; and indeed, he was the embodiment of a Rock Star-a flamboyant, dynamic, iconoclastic front man with fabulous pipes and charisma to spare. I get that. Yet Mercury was one-quarter of a unit where the others brought their own monster musicianship, angelic harmonies and songwriting skills to the table.

When I was a 17-year-old longhair stoner rocking out to “Liar”, “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and “Keep Yourself Alive” while dancing around my room wearing comically over-sized Koss headphones, I don’t recall giving one infinitesimal fuck whether the singer was gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. I just dug the music.

Bottom line, if you go in expecting a Freddie Mercury biopic replete with all the juicy details of his love life and recreations of his legendary bacchanals, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting a Queen biopic that neatly distills the essence of the band and its music, and you’re not overly bothered by fudging on the facts for the sake of some dramatic license, I think you will come out of the theater with Bic lighter held aloft.

# # #

Special note: The showing of Bohemian Rhapsody that I attended was presented in a format hitherto unknown to me called “Screen X”. While I did balk at the $18 price tag (for a goddam matinee?!) I figured it was my duty to check out this newfangled technology.

Screen X requires a three-screen configuration. The center is your standard movie screen image, matted the same as any theater, cable or home video presentation. Additional footage is projected on the left and right wall panels immediately adjacent. This affords what is billed as a “270-degree” field of view (what am I…a fuckin’ owl?).

These side images are composed, filmed, and edited at the same time as the standard theatrical material; the intended effect is to fill your peripheral vision. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, only “selected scenes” were given the full effect (mostly used for the live concert scenes).

It’s being compared to IMAX, but I found it reminiscent of Cinerama (I’m showing my age). Truth be told, it didn’t enhance my movie experience. I found it distracting. Meh. Now, if they could figure a way to add quadrophonic sound…

The sundown kid: The Old Man and the Gun (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2018)

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I have no idea what kind of box office The Old Man and the Gun will do its opening weekend, but if my unscientific head count of approximately 10 fellow patrons at the Friday matinee I attended is any indicator, I’d say Venom is in scant danger of usurpation.

Not that you asked, but there were more indicators of lowered expectations. For one, I noted I was the youngest person in the auditorium (I’m 62). Granted, the star of the film just blew out 82 candles this summer. And of course, a film with “old man” in the title is obviously not targeting a young demographic. It’s no secret Hollywood is all about the youth audience. This may be why the film’s leading man Robert Redford has intuited it’s better to burn out than to fade away; insisting that this role is his “farewell” performance.

This informs the elegiac tone throughout writer-director David Lowery’s leisurely-paced character study, based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker (Redford). Tucker was a slippery devil; during his “career” he escaped from prison “18 times successfully, 12 times unsuccessfully” (his words). Like Redford himself, Tucker pursued his chosen profession well into his golden years, earning a reputation as a “gentleman bandit” (he committed armed robberies, but was courteous to all his victims).

Truth be told, Tucker’s relatively benign bio (well, for a felon) doesn’t have the inherent makings of a riveting crime thriller; but luckily Lowery is smart enough to know that. This is mostly about Bob Redford playing…well, Bob Redford. For one last time. So Lowery doesn’t go for film school flash; utilizing mostly close-ups and two shots, he lets his camera linger on his star, while he exudes that effortless Redford charm and charisma. Both the subject matter and Redford’s naturalistic, low-key portrayal recalls Phillip Borsos’ wonderful 1982 sleeper The Grey Fox, which starred Richard Farnsworth as turn-of-the-century “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner (which is also based on a true story).

Redford is supported by some ace players. Danny Glover and Tom Waits play Tucker’s partners-in-crime (who were dubbed “The Over-the-Hill Gang” by law enforcement). Waits’ character has a great monolog explaining why he hates Christmas that makes you wish he’d been given some more screen time. Sissy Spacek is a welcome presence as a widow Tucker romances (I swear she gets more radiant as she ages). Casey Affleck is effective as a rumpled police detective who plays cat and mouse with Tucker for a spell.

While this is may not be the most memorable film Redford has done over a long, illustrious career, there are worse ways to go. And Bob? We’ll keep the light on for you.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2017

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2017)

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With the year nearly over, ‘tis the season for my roundup of the top 10 feature films out of the 50+ that I reviewed in 2017. Granted, there are several intriguing late December releases that I have yet to see, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, and the biopics I, Tonya and Film Stars Don’t Die in  Liverpool.  However, it appears those films will not be opening in Seattle in time for me to review them in 2017, so what you see here is my “official” top 10 list:

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After the Storm – This elegant family drama from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story. All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when star Hiroshi Abe and scene-stealer Kirin Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be richly rewarded.

Full review

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Bad Black – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Full review

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

Full review

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Blade Runner 2049 – So many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. Star Ryan Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances, and it works. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

Full review

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A Date for Mad Mary –  The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood.

Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Full review

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Endless Poetry – 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.

Full review

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I Am Not Your Negro – The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film.

Full review

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Loving Vincent – If I liken Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes…that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I’m 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 hand-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. 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 the most visually resplendent one that I’ve seen to date.

Full review

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The Women’s Balcony – A warm, witty and wise Israeli dramedy from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. What begins as a joyous celebration at a small synagogue takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses. This leaves the congregation with no place to worship, and no spiritual leader until their aging rabbi recovers from his resulting nervous breakdown.

Fate delivers an ambitious young rabbi, who quickly ingratiates himself as “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hasty remodeling eschews the open balcony for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services. Soon, the women find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. This coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts, resulting in a truly superb ensemble performance.

Full review

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed and I cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

Full review

Blu-ray reissue: Sid and Nancy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Sid and Nancy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer, but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”).

The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins, which is really brought to the fore in Criterion’s 4K restoration. Extras include a 1987 doc on the making of the film, and the “infamous” 1976 Sex Pistols TV interview with Bill Grundy.

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?