Category Archives: Biopic

Instant International Film Festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 6, 2022)

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Ah, the dog days of August-when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring super pets, UFOS, thunder gods, child supervillains or alpha fighter pilots with a need for speed; but if I’m in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.

If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering the Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a “Best of the Festival Festival” (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).

These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!

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Another Earth – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Full review)

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Bad Black– Some films defy description. This is one of them. 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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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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Mid-August Lunch – This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. (Full review)

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Nowhere Boy – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Full review)

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Polisse – A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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Queen of the Sun – I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us. (Full review)

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The Rocket – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a winning performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Telstar – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Full review)

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.

Tribeca 2021: Creation Stories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19, 2021)

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Nick Moran’s manic, hyper-kinetic biopic about Creation Records founder Alan McGee (who spearheaded the Britpop explosion of the 1990s) plays like a mashup of 24-Hour Party People and Trainspotting. This is not surprising considering the screenplay is co-written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh (with Dean Cavanagh). The narrative is framed by McGee (Ewen Bremner) telling his life story to a journalist. Cue the flashbacks, starting with McGee’s modest early successes in the 80s with acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and culminating with his mentorship of Oasis in the mid-90s.

The film moves too quickly for its own good, giving you no real sense of who McGee is (apart from establishing that he is an “outsider”). Another major hurdle is Bremner, who remains the most unintelligible actor in the English-speaking world (even for a Scotsman). Subtitles really would have helped. As much as I dug Moran’s 2009 Joe Meek biopic Telstar, I am afraid this one is a letdown.

 

Babylon Berlin: Enfant Terrible (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2021)

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“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.”

― Rainer Werner Fassbinder

An oft-quoted Chinese philosopher once proffered “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. He could have been prophesying the short yet productive life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Over a 15-year period ending with his death in 1982 at age 37, the German playwright, director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc. churned out 40+ feature films, a couple dozen stage plays , two TV mini-series, and various video productions, radio plays and shorts.

As illustrated in a new biopic, he also snorted lots of coke, cruised a lot of rough trade, threw a lot of tantrums, and generally treated friends, lovers, and actors (frequently all one and the same) like shit. It could be argued he didn’t suffer for his art, so much as make those around him suffer for it. He was “the bad boy” of New German Cinema.

Hence the title of Oskar Roehler’s fitfully inspired Enfant Terrible, which is propelled by Oliver Masucci’s scenery-chewing turn as Fassbinder (a performance that vacillates between Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall and John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House).

After several years of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating theater productions, Fassbinder declares to his long-suffering collaborator Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) “Wherever you go is material that is about how people see their dreams and how their dreams get destroyed. The theater can’t do it. Only cinema can do it.” This launches a torrent of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating films.

Eventually critics and audiences warm to Fassbinder’s work, starting with his internationally acclaimed 1974 drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The narrative thread about Fassbinder’s relationship with leading man El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) provides Enfant Terrible with an emotional core it otherwise lacks (as nihilism  runs through much of Fassbinder’s work, perhaps it is intended to reflect the artist himself).

Roehler cannily replicates the aesthetic of Fassbinder’s films; bold colors, the cinematography (by Carl-Friedrich Koschnick), production design (done by Roehler himself), self-consciously theatrical sets, and the use of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame indicates that he did his homework.

Using metatheatre, Roehler and co-writer Klaus Richter draw parallels between snippets of Fassbinder cruelly manipulating actors on set and vignettes depicting his tortured personal life, but it becomes repetitive. It’s a shame they didn’t take a deeper dive into Fassbinder’s creative vision; what you’re left with is a highlight reel of his filmography sandwiched between yet another sad study in willful self-destruction.

(“Enfant Terrible” is now playing in select physical and virtual cinemas)

Dare to struggle: Judas and the Black Messiah (***)

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27. 2021)

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Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Presidents and Senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?

— from The Godfather

While it is based on a true story and billed as a “biopic”, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah feels more akin to fictional early 70s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. Those three films (released in proximity of the Watergate break-in scandal and President Richard Nixon’s consequent resignation) are permeated by an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and betrayal that mirrors the climate of the Nixon era. That is not to imply Judas and the Black Messiah is made up from whole cloth. From a recent Democracy Now broadcast:

[Host Amy Goodman] Newly unearthed documents have shed new light on the FBI’s role in the murder of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police raided Hampton’s apartment and shot and killed him in his bed, along with fellow Black Panther leader Mark Clark. Authorities initially claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, but evidence later emerged that told a very different story: The FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police had conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up. “It was approved at the highest level,” says attorney Jeff Haas.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies conspiring to assassinate an American citizen as he slept in his apartment? It happened. Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and one of the lead lawyers in the (posthumous) Fred Hampton civil rights case elaborated to host Amy Goodman (from the same broadcast):

But what [documents] showed was that [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, [director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division William] Sullivan and [head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division George] Moore were following Roy Mitchell, a special agent in charge, very closely with regard to [FBI informant Bill] O’Neal. And they were complimenting him and rewarding him from the moment he gave the information and the floor plan [for Fred Hampton’s apartment] to special agent Mitchell. They were congratulating Mitchell on what a wonderful job he did with this informant. Of course, Mitchell got the floor plan, gave it to Hanrahan’s [Chicago] police, and that’s what led to the raid. The floor plan even showed the bed where Hampton and Johnson would be sleeping.

So, we knew much of this. We knew O’Neal had gotten a bonus. We never knew Mitchell got a bonus. And we never knew that Hoover and Sullivan and Moore were starting to watch this in November, 10 days before it happened. They were monitoring exactly what went on. And so it was approved at the highest level. And during the trial, we had sought to go up to Sullivan and Moore and Hoover, but the judge wouldn’t allow us. And we thought perhaps even John Mitchell and Richard Nixon were involved. We didn’t have these documents, so we couldn’t uncover that. This also shows that after the raid, the head of the FBI in Chicago met with and congratulated the informant, O’Neal, thanked him for his information, which led to the success of the raid.

Possible direct involvement by the White House certainly qualifies as the “highest level”. It is also interesting that an “Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division” existed in 1969 to keep close watch on the Panthers and other organizations that shared what present-day Fox prime time hosts might sneeringly refer to as “radical extremist socialist agendas” (BTW if such a special section still exists…where was their vigilance this past January 6th?).

That is a lot to unpack; much less in a 2-hour film. Perhaps wisely, writer-director King and co-writers Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas focus less on the complex political machinations and more on the personal aspects of the story.

More specifically, the filmmakers construct a dual narrative that shows how the life paths of charismatic Marxist revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who would ultimately play “Judas” to his “black messiah”, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) converged.

There isn’t much backstory offered explaining Hampton’s rapid transformation from aspiring law student who joined the NAACP in the mid-60s to founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; but then again, considering that he was dead and gone by age 21, his historical impact seems all the more remarkable.

On the other hand, O’Neal (who was one year younger than Hampton) is a man with less lofty ideals and negligible passion for politics. He is a career criminal whose luck runs out when he gets nailed for a felony beef after driving a stolen car across state lines. The arresting officer is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who offers O’Neal a way out: infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, become an FBI informant, and win fabulous prizes (like having his felony charges disappear). O’Neal accepts the deal.

O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, to the point where he becomes a member of the Chairman’s trusted inner circle. Along the way, the filmmakers offer a Cliff’s Notes summary of Hampton’s brief but productive tenure as head of the Chicago Panthers; his implementation of a program providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, establishment of a free clinic, and (most impressively) mediating a peace treaty between long-time rival Chicago street gangs (ultimately leading to formation of the original multiracial “Rainbow Coalition”).

Ironically, it’s not so much what Hampton “does” that matters one way or the other to FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the rest of the posse out to “neutralize” the threat (perceived or otherwise) Hampton represents to the status quo, but rather what he says…which is at times incendiary and what some might even call seditious (Hoover is on record declaring the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”).

Just months before his death Hampton is arrested for (of all things) stealing $70 worth of candy. He is convicted, but the charges are overturned. There were several police raids on the Black Panthers’ HQ the same year, although the filmmakers distill them into one shootout incident. Clearly, the authorities were circling their prey, culminating in the fateful late-night raid in December of 1969 that left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clarke dead and several people wounded. The reenactment of the incident is harrowing and affecting.

Ballistic evidence revealed one shot fired by the Panthers…and 100 (one hundred) shots fired by the police. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds more like a police “assault” than a police “raid”. One of the people in the apartment that night was Hampton’s eight-month pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (wonderfully played in the film by Dominique Fishback, who was a standout in the HBO series The Deuce). No matter how you may view Hampton’s place in history (hero or villain) the circumstances of his demise should dismay anyone familiar with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says (among other things)

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Judas and the Black Messiah is not a definitive biopic but does convey that what happened to Fred Hampton was an American tragedy…sadly, one that continues to occur to this day.

Paging Upton Sinclair: Mank (***½) & Martin Eden (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Herman J. Mankiewicz: Irving [Thalberg], you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty. […]

Mankiewicz [In a later scene, referring to his dinner host William Randolph Hearst] …he’s EXACTLY what our Don used to be! An idealist, ya get it? And not only that, his nemesis [gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair] is the same guy who once predicted that our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. [Pointing at fellow dinner guest Louis B. Mayer] Assisted by his faithful Sancho.

from Mank, screenplay by Jack Fincher

Russ Brissenden: I’m warning you, Martin…don’t waste time. How many people do you see starve to death or go to jail because they are nothing else but wretches, stupid and ignorant slaves? Fight for them, Martin. Fight for socialism.

Martin Eden: You and I have nothing to do with socialists! Yet you insist on spending time with them!

Russ Brissenden: Socialism is inevitable. The slaves have now become too many. Anything is preferable to the pigs that govern now. Socialism will give a sense to your writing, Martin. It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.

Martin Eden: What disappointment? [End scene]

– from Martin Eden, screenplay by Maurizio Brariucci & Pietro Marcello

It is tempting to suggest that, aside from the fact that David Fincher’s Mank and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden are films about writers (the former a real-life figure and the latter a fictional character), they are also both “about” socialism. But they are not really, at least not in any didactic way. I will venture to suggest that they do merge in a tangential way, with a minor fender-bender at the intersection of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

I came to this ‘epiphany’ in my usual bumbling fashion. Being a lazy bastard, I have been putting off writing a review of Mank (which has been available on Netflix since early December). This time of year, less screener links come my way than usual (even publicists need a holiday break, I suppose), so with nothing new to cover this week I went for the low-hanging fruit, planning to devote this post to Mank. Murphy’s Law being what it is, I was offered a crack at Martin Eden, a film I had already been intrigued to see.

Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s eponymous novel. I admit I have never read it, which may have worked in my favor, as I went into it with no expectations and an open mind. Good thing too, as I gather that some London purists are upset that the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci transposed a tale originally set in early 1900s America to an unspecified (mid to latter?) 20th-Century period in Italy, chockablock with anachronisms.

When we are introduced to the strapping Martin (Luca Marinelli) he’s a drunken sailor pulling an all-night pub crawl, boning and grogging his way down the waterfront and sleeping it off al fresco. When he awakens, he espies a slightly built young man getting bullied by a goon and springs to his rescue. The grateful Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) invites Martin to have breakfast with his family, who turn out to be well to-do. This is where Martin meets Arturo’s pretty sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) who will be the love of his life.

The directionless (and penniless) Martin is enthralled and fascinated not only by Elena’s loveliness, but her education and refinement. Intuiting that his uneducated proletarian upbringing puts him out of her league, he decides then and there to become a man of letters, come hell or high water. Initially, Elena’s interest does not lean toward amour, but she is not immune to Martin’s innate charm. She also senses his natural intelligence; so, she begins to tutor him, encouraging him to expand his intellect (not unlike My Fair Lady, except in this scenario…Elena is Professor Higgins, and Martin is Eliza Doolittle).

Martin begins to write in earnest. At a soiree hosted by Elena’s family, Martin recites one of his poems, to polite applause. One of the guests is Russ Brissenden, an older gentleman of mysterious means. The straight-talking Brissenden tells Martin his poem had substance and was not appreciated by the bourgeoisie guests. Brissenden, a Socialist and writer himself, becomes a mentor, encouraging Martin to write about what he knows.

Eventually Martin and Elena’s relationship does develop into full-blown romance. However, when Martin tells her that he has decided to pursue writing as a living, he is puzzled and hurt when she tells him that the subjects that he chooses to write about are too “raw” and “real” and do not offer enough “hope” to people. She implies that if he does not find a trade to fall back on, she is afraid they will never be able to get married.

Martin goes to Brissenden for counseling. When Brissenden tells him that he needs to forget about pleasing Elena (bluntly referring to her as an “idiot”) and reset his priorities to focus solely on finding his voice as a writer, Martin sees red and physically attacks Brissenden. He immediately apologizes, as he now sees that Elena’s harsh appraisal of his work was not constructive criticism, so much as it was her outing herself as a classist.

In a narrative jump 2/3 of the way through, Martin has not only found his voice as a writer, essayist, and poet, but fame and fortune as such. He is also cynical, apolitical, and indifferent to success. He’s given most of his money away; mostly to those who helped him when he was struggling. At a public event, he sneeringly refers to himself as a “hoodlum and a sailor” to adoring fans. We get a sketch of Martin’s wilderness years between his breakup with Elena and achieving world acclaim, but with no explanation given for his apparent descent into a chronic state of existential malaise and self-loathing.

For the final third of the film, Martin tap-dances willy-nilly around the edges of the time-space continuum like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one scene, he watches a group of Fascist black shirts enjoying recreation at the beach. There are references to an imminent “war” involving Italy during what appears to be the late 70s…but then we see a vintage newsreel of a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. It is artfully constructed, which I suppose injects lyricism into Marcello’s film, but it somehow feels like window dressing.

Then again, if I may jump ahead and steal a line from Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.” On the plus side, despite its overreaching themes Martin Eden is a pleasing throwback to class struggle dramas from the 60s and 70s like Visconti’s The Leopard and Bertolucci’s 1900.

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Regarding Upton Sinclair. He and Jack London were not only contemporaries, but mutual admirers of each other’s writings. Before he wrote The Jungle, the 1906 novel that put him on the map, Sinclair (who had over 90 books to his credit by his death in 1968 at the age of 90) is said to have been greatly influenced by People of the Abyss, London’s 1903 book about the slums of London’s East End. And here’s what London said of The Jungle:

“Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”

That sounds awfully close to the kind of book that the (fictional) Socialist Russ Brissenden would love to see his (fictional) protégé Martin Eden write. Not a stretch, considering London was a Socialist. In fact, he and Sinclair were charter members of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Founded in 1905, the I.S.S. had a stated purpose to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.”

But what’s most interesting about Martin Eden (commonly assumed to be a semi-autobiographical work), is that its protagonist rejects Socialism outright. According to Wiki, in the copy of the novel which he inscribed for Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” And so it goes.

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For a guy who has been dead for 53 years, Upton Sinclair sure gets around a lot these days. Admittedly he has but a spectral “presence” in the margins of Martin Eden (as I explained above) but he gets a cameo and maybe a quarter-page of dialog in David Fincher’s Mank. Well, “he” as in a reasonable facsimile, in the person of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye portrays Sinclair delivering a speech in his iteration as a politician, when he ran for Governor of California in 1934 (he ran as a Democrat and lost the race).

However, the focus of David Fincher’s Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz – Hollywood screenwriter, inveterate gambler, world-class inebriate, and born tummler. More specifically, it is a (more-or-less accurate) chronicle of the part he played in the creation of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Back in 2007, I published a review of a film wherein I innocuously referenced to The Princess Bride as “Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.” At the time, Hullabaloo readers were able to comment on posts. Man, did I ever release the Kraken with that one. To say that I was beset upon is understatement. “ROB REINER’S The Princess Bride?! Ingrate! Philistine! Aren’t you aware that William Goldman wrote the screenplay?!” Yes, I was.

This sparked a lively discussion on “whose” film it was. Call me madcap, but I’m sure I’ve read and heard the phrase “Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause” many more times than the phrase “Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause” (as in never!). Of course I realize there’s no film without a screenwriter. And I’m also aware there are films written and directed by the same person. I just never got the memo about these shorthand “rules”.

So is it “Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane”? Or is it “Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane”?

In his ambitious attempt to answer that million-dollar question in just over two hours, Fincher, armed with a sharp and literate screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003; I’d hazard that this project was in development for a spell) has layered his biopic with enough Hollywood meta to make even Quentin Tarantino plotz.

The story opens in 1940, by which time Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has burned his bridges in Tinseltown, thanks to his sharp tongue and love of the bottle. Despite this (or perhaps he is attracted by Mank’s budget-friendly mix of writing prowess and financial desperation), Welles (Tom Burke) recruits him to write a screenplay for his first film. Welles, with a commanding and formidable presence that belied his 24 years, was a hard man to say “no” to. He had already made a splash in radio and theater and had just signed an unprecedented contract with RKO which gave him full creative control of his projects.

Mank is convalescing from an auto accident that has left him bedridden with a broken leg. Welles has set him up at an isolated ranch house in Victorville, California, where Mank dictates his screenplay to his British secretary (Lily Collins). In a slightly cruel but pragmatic move, Wells has also provided Mank with a cabinet full of liquor (surreptitiously laced with Seconal) at the foot of the bed…out of reach. This dangles a carrot for motivation to heal up and focus on writing, but also (sort of) guarantees rationing.

Welles enlists his producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to make house calls to keep tabs on Mank’s progress with the script (which eventually tops 300 pages, much to Houseman’s chagrin). As Mank toils on his tome, flashbacks to the 1930s are cleverly interwoven to tell both the story of Mank’s mercurial career in the Hollywood studio system, as well as illustrate how his equally mercurial acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) provided the grist for creating the characters in Citizen Kane. (in the event Citizen Kane remains unchecked on your bucket list, that would be the one where “Charles Foster Kane” unquestionably rhymes with “William Randolph Hearst”).

Film buffs who have given Citizen Kane a spin will enjoy playing “spot the visual quote”, as Fincher has festooned them throughout (nice B&W photography by Erik Messerschmidt adds to the verisimilitude). The elder Fincher’s script gives the characters much to chew on, particularly Oldman, who merrily fires off Mank’s droll barbs with deadly accuracy. Fine work by a large cast that includes Ferdinand Kingsley (as Irving Thalberg), Arless Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (as Mank’s brother Joseph) and Tuppence Middleton playing Mank’s long-suffering but devoted wife Sara.

As far as resolving “whose” film Citizen Kane is…here’s one take, from a recent BFI essay by the always insightful Farran Smith Nehme (who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren):

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous.

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just as Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Rule of thumb? Give credit where credit is due…when practical. Welles summed it up best when he said: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”). The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit. (Full review)

Blu-ray reissue: The Elephant Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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The Elephant Man – Criterion Collection

This 1980 David Lynch film (nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened to him.

While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectfully and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white (by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nod for his performance, more impressive when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Great work by the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 4K restoration, archival interviews with the director, Hurt, co-producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sangar (and others associated with the production), a 2005 program about the real “elephant man” John Merrick, and more.

Hands up: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2020)

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What were the odds? A couple weeks ago, I Tweeted this:

I hadn’t thought about The Grey Fox in years; it’s one of my favorite 80s sleepers. Something about Senator Kaine’s “gentleman bandit” couture made the film suddenly pop into my head.

Flash-forward one week: I receive an email alerting me that Philip Borsos’ 1982 gem has undergone a 4K restoration and was premiering May 29th for a limited run via Kino-Lorber’s “Kino Marquee” platform (small world!) The studio distributes to a network of select cinemas nationwide, giving movie fans a chance to buy “tickets” and support their shuttered local art house venue by streaming through that venue’s website. Here in Seattle, the film is playing via the Grand Illusion theater’s virtual screening room; for other cities / venues click here.

Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”).

The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth (who died in 2000 at 80) brings an uncanny authenticity to the role; not only because of age-appropriate casting, but thanks to his rugged countenance (undoubtedly stemming from his previous three decades as a stuntman). Farnsworth literally looks like he stepped directly out of the 19th-Century and walked right into this film.

John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist. Miner gets out of prison and heads north to Washington state, where he lodges with his sister and her husband and finds work. The straight and narrow wears thin on the restless ex-con. He talks a dim-witted fellow worker (Wayne Robson) into traveling with him up to Canada to be his partner-in crime. As stagecoaches are a thing of the past, Miner (not unlike Butch Cassidy) intuits a bright future in robbing trains.

Eventually Miner has to cool his heels, as a dogged Pinkerton man (Gary Reineke) is hot on his trail (he’s noticed that the perpetrator of a string of train robberies in Canada has a suspiciously similar M.O. to Miner’s past stagecoach robberies in California). He and his cohort settle in a small town in British Columbia, where Miner (now living under an alias) meets and develops a relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs). Do Miner’s bad, bad ways catch up with him again? That would be telling.

Borso paints an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (along the lines of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet). The 4k restoration is gorgeous, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit.

The ragman’s son: RIP Kirk Douglas

By Dennis Hartley

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Kirk Douglas December 9, 1916-February 5, 2020

This one hurts. Not a shocker at age 103. But still…this one hurts. Beyond a legend…last of a breed. Where do I even begin?

In his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas wrote:

The biggest lie is the lie we tell ourselves in the distorted visions we have of ourselves, blocking out some sections, enhancing others. What remains are not the cold facts of life, but how we perceive them. That’s really who we are.

An astute and particularly self-aware observation for an actor to make.  After all, you could say that actors “lie” for a living, always pretending to be someone they are not; “blocking out some sections, enhancing others” to best serve the character.  That said, the best actors are those who can channel this human flaw into a superpower that brings us face-to-face with “the cold facts of life” when necessary and reveal universal truths about “who we are”.

Kirk Douglas could do that with a glance, a gesture, a shrug. He was a very physical actor, but you had a sense there was a carefully calibrated intelligence informing every glance, every gesture, every shrug.

He played heroes and villains with equal elan but injected all of his characters with a relatable humanity.  He was one of the last players standing from the echelon of “classic” Hollywood…a true movie star.

I hope the Academy does him justice with a worthy tribute Sunday night. He deserves one. Ru in shlum, Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

Ultimately, the work speaks for itself.  There are so many great Douglas films, but here are 15 “must-sees” available right now via cable on-demand and rentals  (this is based on my Xfinity package; so depending  on your subscriptions, “results may vary”-as they say).

Spartacus (HITZ on demand)

Paths of Glory (ScreenPix on demand)

Ace in the Hole (Paramount PPV)

Lust for Life (Xfinity PPV)

Seven Days in May (Warner Brothers PPV)

Out of the Past (Warner Brothers PPV)

Lonely Are the Brave (Universal PPV)

Detective Story (Paramount PPV)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (STARZ on demand)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (EPIX, Prime Video, tubi)

Young Man With a Horn (Warner Brothers PPV)

The Bad and the Beautiful (Xfinity PPV)

Two Weeks in Another Town (TCM on demand)

I Walk Alone (Paramount PPV)

The Man From Snowy RIver (STARZ on demand)