Category Archives: Comedy

SIFF 2024: Bonjour Switzerland (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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Bananas meets The Mouse That Roared in this refreshingly old-school political satire directed by Peter Luisi. Beat Schlatter (who co-wrote the screenplay with the director) stars as a mild-mannered German-speaking federal agent who gets tasked with overseeing implementation of a controversial new Swiss law that mandates French as the country’s official language (in true Peter Sellers fashion, Schlatter also plays the high-profile media demagogue who pushed for the law). Problems quickly pile up for the hapless agent; he can barely speak French, his dear old mom becomes radicalized, and he finds himself falling for an Italian woman who belongs to a separatist group he’s been assigned to infiltrate. OK, I’ll say it: This is a hilarious, good-natured romp.

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2024)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards ceremonies are this Sunday. As an alleged “movie critic”, I sheepishly admit I have only seen 1 of the10 nominees for 2023’s Best Picture: Oppenheimer, if you really must pry (“I must! I must!”). Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

This is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 95 Academy Awards. Or perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And keep the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 86 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie? Michael Curtiz directed; Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch adapted the screenplay from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ steamy source novel about restless G.I.s stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still relatively risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Montgomery Clift was born to play angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her portray a sex worker, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)- Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise co-directed this classic musical drama (with a screenplay adapted by Ernest Lehman from the stage version). You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of myriad viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder.

Poitier really nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message).

Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to earn Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking, idiosyncratic character study Midnight Cowboy (1969) also ushered in an era of mature, gritty realism in American film that flourished from the early to mid-1970s. The film was Schlesinger’s first U.S.-based project; he had already made a name for himself in his native England with films like A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Warhol’s “Factory” regulars in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece (with screenplays co-written by the director with Mario Puzo) is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he found his voice as a filmmaker.

The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film was back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully constructed neo-noir (which earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the aftermath of a shootout. As this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, yet menacing, made all the more unsettling by his Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are standouts as well. Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated for his cinematography, but his work on this film ranks among his best.

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2024)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of the upcoming Oscars (March 10th). Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains director Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Milius, it’s an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.

2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they  last long enough.

3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a master screenwriter (Robert Towne), lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it with a perfect music score (Jerry Goldsmith), you create a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II (A tough call, to be sure).

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

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this cynical age we live in, once upon a time there were these things called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, and basic human decency. Ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic (which he co-wrote with Charles Spaak) is at its heart a treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich van Stroheim head up a fine cast.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel by John Huston (his directing debut), is embedded in film buffs’ neurons-so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Peter Lorre as ‘Joel Cairo’ (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Best Actor statue for his turn as Howard Beale).

48 years on, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay not only foresees news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age. Fantastic work from a cast that includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway (Best Actress win), Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress win). But alas…no ‘Best Picture’ statue.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction-With the cottage industry of Pulp Fiction clones that spewed forth in its wake, it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film was. Depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek?

The correct answer is, “yes”.

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump (Still difficult for me to accept.)

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an impressive group of surviving participants; their interwoven recollections provide a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just took it for an umpteenth spin the other night, and laughed as if I was watching it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators through the years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

But of tomorrow: RIP Ryan O’ Neal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 8, 2023)

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No lad who has liberty for the first time, and twenty guineas in his pocket, is very sad, and Barry rode towards Dublin thinking not so much of the kind mother left alone, and of the home behind him, but of tomorrow, and all the wonders it would bring.

-from Barry Lyndon

Oh man, oh God…we’ve lost another one:

Ryan O’Neal, the boyish leading man who kicked off an extraordinary 1970s run in Hollywood with his Oscar-nominated turn as the Harvard preppie Oliver in the legendary romantic tearjerker Love Story, has died. He was 82.

O’Neal died Friday, his son Patrick O’Neal, a sportscaster with Bally Sports West in Los Angeles, reported on Instagram. He had been diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 2001 and with prostate cancer in 2012.

“As a human being, my father was as generous as they come,” Patrick wrote. “And the funniest person in any room. And the most handsome clearly, but also the most charming. Lethal combo. He loved to make people laugh. It’s pretty much his goal. Didn’t matter the situation, if there was a joke to be found, he nailed it. He really wanted us laughing. And we did all laugh. Every time. We had fun. Fun in the sun.” […]

Patrick Ryan O’Neal was born on April 20, 1941, in Los Angeles, the older son of novelist-screenwriter Charles “Blackie” O’Neal (The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin) and actress Patricia Callaghan. He competed in Golden Gloves events in L.A. in 1956 and 1957 and compiled a boxing record of 18-4 with 13 knockouts, according to his website.

In the late 1950s, O’Neal and his family moved to Munich, and he became infatuated with the syndicated TV series Tales of the Vikings, which shot in Europe and was produced by Kirk Douglas‘ company.

According to a 1975 newspaper account, he wrote to another producer, George Cahan, on the show: “I am six feet tall, and with a false beard I will look as much like a Viking as any actor on the set … I may be the Gary Cooper of tomorrow.”

O’Neal went on to perform as a stuntman on the series.

After appearing on such shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons, O’Neal co-starred opposite Richard Egan on Empire, a 1962-63 NBC Western set in New Mexico.

O’Neal would go on to land a choice role on the drama series Peyton Place, appearing in 500 episodes from 1964 to 1969. His big screen breakout was starring alongside Ali MacGraw in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tear-jerker Love Story; not a personal favorite of mine, but a huge box office hit that assured him movie star status for the remainder of that decade.

Honestly, I wouldn’t call him a method actor…but O’Neal was undeniably a movie star, in the old school sense; I might even venture, “laconic”, much like “the Gary Cooper of tomorrow” that he once aspired to be. A toast to a fine career, and all the wonders that it brought him.

Here’s some recommended viewing:

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Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick’s beautifully photographed, leisurely paced adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a roguish Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who grifts his way into the English aristocracy is akin to watching 18th-century paintings sumptuously spring to life (funnily enough, its detractors tend to liken it to “oil paintings” as well, but for entirely different reasons). The cast includes Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leonard Rossiter and Leon Vitali.

This magnificent 1975 film has improved with age, like a fine wine; successive viewings prove the stories about Kubrick’s obsession with the minutest of details were not exaggerated-every frame is steeped in verisimilitude. Michael Hordern’s delightfully droll voice over work as The Narrator rescues the proceedings from sliding into staidness.

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The Driver -Walter Hill’s spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film. O’ Neal is perfectly cast, exuding a Zen-like cool. Also with Isabelle Adjani. One of my favorite 70s crime thrillers, and an obvious inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive (my review).

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Nickelodeon -Peter Bogdanovich’s love letter to the silent film era, depicting the trials and tribulations of indie filmmakers, circa 1910. It leans a bit heavy on the slapstick at times, but is bolstered by charming performances by a great cast that includes Ryan O’Neal, Stella Stevens, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Tatum O’Neal. It’s beautifully photographed by László Kovács. Anyone who truly loves the movies will find the denouement quite moving.

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Paper Moon -Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Tough Guys Don’t Dance – If “offbeat noir” is your thing, this is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)

Noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino tapped him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission when Tierny barks “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).

Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted over the years, but his minimalist style works. The film has a David Lynch vibe at times (which could be due to the fact that Isabella Rossellini co-stars, and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti). A guilty pleasure.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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The Wild Rovers – Blake Edwards made a western? Yes, he did, and not a half-bad one at that. A world-weary cowhand (William Holden) convinces a younger (and somewhat dim) co-worker (Ryan O’Neal) that since it’s obvious that they’ll never really get ahead in their present profession, they should give bank robbery a shot. They get away with it, but then find themselves on the run, oddly, not so much from the law, but from their former employer (Karl Malden), who is mightily offended that anyone who worked for him would do such a thing. Episodic and leisurely paced, but ambles along quite agreeably, thanks to the charms of the two leads, and the beautiful, expansive photography by Philip Lathrop. Ripe for rediscovery.

Lazy, hazy, crazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 1, 2023)

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Since we’re about to officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a fascinating and colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc. and the performances are outstanding.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day. If you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching, and Stern obliges. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t come to full flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel).

On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there.

Beautifully acted and directed. In 2022, Davison and Thomas appeared in Season 4 of the Netflix series Ozark (although they didn’t share any scenes).

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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 2009 gangster drama Gomorra).

Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, an easy-going middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he tells a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”.

One day, his landlord drops in. He wants to take a weekend excursion with his mistress and asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for forgiveness on back rent, he requests Giovanni take a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Soon after, Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call; in lieu of a service charge he asks Giovanni if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

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. In a scene that reminded me of a classic 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 limited menu, but you’ll find every morsel worth savoring.

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Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not normally synonymous, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a few lovers herself. As you may guess, this leads to amusing complications.

Love in all its guises is represented by a bevy of richly drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (the inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sensuous, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

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Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, and Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

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Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoon title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s films) that makes it unique and worthwhile.

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A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting.

In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside creperie. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). A friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo).

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. Don’t despair; it won’t (as Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves states regarding a Rohmer film) be akin to “watching paint dry”. Even a neophyte will glean the director’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy).

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Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play.

His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”?

The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

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3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s.

The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Jump down, stand up: Ride On (***½) & Out of the Loop (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 8, 2023)

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In my 2010 review of Sheng Ding’s Little Big Soldier, I wrote:

I will confess that I have not gone out of my way to follow action star Jackie Chan’s career. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has made 99 films; after a quick perusal of that impressive list, I’d guesstimate that I have seen approximately, let’s see, somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, around…four.

So when I say that Little Big Soldier is the best Jackie Chan flick I’ve ever seen, you can take that with a grain of salt. There is one camp of Chan’s devotees who would tell you that you can’t truly appreciate his prowess as an entertainer until you’ve seen one of his Hong Kong productions; I think I understand what they are talking about now.

Of course, you could easily apply this caveat to any number of accomplished actors from Europe or Asia who, due to their broken English, give the impression of impaired performances when they star in Hollywood films.

For example, let’s say I was a (what’s a polite term?) casual ‘murcan moviegoer who had never heard of The Last Metro, The Return of Martin Guerre or Jean de Florette, and my first awareness of Gerard Depardieu was seeing him in 102 Dalmatians. “Loved the puppies, but who was that dopey fat French dude?”

So, while Chan’s latest Hollywood vehicle, The Karate Kid inundates 3700 screens, in the meantime this splendidly acted and handsomely mounted comedy-adventure-fable from director Sheng Ding sits in the wings, awaiting U.S. distribution.

Now, 13 years later, as of this writing, I can officially count the number of Jackie Chan films I’ve seen on one hand: Police Story, Police Story 2, Drunken Master, Little Big Soldier, and his latest starring vehicle, Ride On (in theaters only).

It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday (April 7th) because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.

That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman. Lao has fallen on hard times; movie gigs have become far and few between.

The good-natured Lao and his faithful horse/stunt partner Red Hare (who he has raised from a foal) have been reduced to working odd jobs and street performing to scrape by. When an attempt to seize Red Hare as collateral escalates into an altercation between Lao and a trio of thuggish debt collectors, a cell phone video of the incident goes viral and  puts Lao and Red Hare in the spotlight. Lacking the money to retain a lawyer, Lao swallows his pride and enlists his estranged daughter Bao (Liu Haocun) and her attorney boyfriend (Kevin Guo) to help him keep Red Hare. Father and daughter slowly rebuild their relationship.

While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving.

When he is enlisted to do a stunt with Red Hare on a big-budget film, Lao is aghast at the idea of CGI enhancement in post; he politely insists that the director allow him to perform the stunt au naturel. There are other self-referential touches; Lao laments that “jumping down is easy…stepping down is hard.” The film’s best line is surely a stunt man’s credo: “Action! Jump! Hospital!” I don’t know if Chan contributed that one …but he most certainly has lived it.

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This quiz is for non-Chicago residents only: If I say to you “Chicago comedy scene”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

If you answered, “Second City”, that’s understandable. Chicago continues to be the home of the longest running (and most famous) improvisational comedy troupe, which has served as the breeding ground for a healthy number of  notable actors, comedians, writers, and filmmakers.

However, ladies and gentlemen, the filmmakers behind the new documentary Out of the Loop (available on digital platforms starting April 11th) prefer to direct your attention to the Windy City’s stand-up scene, which not only boasts its own rich history, but continues to be alive and well, thank you very much.

Directed by Michael Alexander and edited and produced by Scott Perlman, the film is a fairly straightforward talking heads fest, featuring current and former Chicago-based performers like Hannibal Buress, Tom Dreesen, Marsha Warfield, TJ Miller, Megan Gailey, Jeff Garlin, Jimmy Pardo, the late Judy Tenuta, et.al. sharing personal anecdotes and giving their perspectives on Chicago’s comic voice, as it were.

What emerges is that Chicago comedy doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable voice, but rather a diversity of comedic sensibilities. This is due in no small part to distinctive “North side/South side” vibes that are delineated by cultural differences (e.g., a joke that “kills” with a predominately white audience might go over like a lead balloon with a predominately black audience, and vice-versa). While arguably, you could make the same observation regarding the comedy scene in any large metro in the U.S., Chicago also has a unique sociopolitical history. The film delves into this fascinating dichotomy a bit, but ultimately drops it.

Therein lies the problem with the film; it can’t seem to find its focus. It has its moments; the inevitable “hell gig” stories are always a hoot, and it was interesting to learn about the late Bernie Mac’s visionary impact on the scene (in fact, it felt like there was enough potential material there alone to warrant its own feature-length documentary).

Not required viewing, but I won’t heckle any avid stand-up fan who wants to give it a whirl.

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2023)

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Dee: Jane, do you ever feel like you are just this far from being completely hysterical twenty-four hours a day?

Jane: Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty-four hours a day.

— from Grand Canyon, screenplay by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan

HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

— from 2001: A Space Odyssey, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

George Fields: [to Dorothy/Michael] I BEGGED you to get therapy!

— from Tootsie, screenplay by Murray Schisgal

As if the mid-winter blues weren’t enough, there’s been an odd confluence of celestial events recently – a close encounter with a hurtling asteroid, an eerie green comet lighting up the night skies, and the mysterious appearance of a high altitude “spy balloon” the size of three metro buses that has the conspiracy nuts twisting themselves into pretzels. Not that I believe in heavenly portents, but I am feeling the need for some “cinema therapy” right about now.

With that in mind, here are 12 films I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; the ones I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down. Take one or two before bedtime; cocktail optional.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth. Fueled by the pulsing rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s samba soundtrack, Black Orpheus fully engages the senses. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things get complicated, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about the place.

You may be scratching your head as to why I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but Black Orpheus is graced by one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema; which always assures me that everything is going to be alright.

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The Dish – This 2000 Australian sleeper dramatizes the story behind the live televised images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969. The worldwide broadcast was facilitated by a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales.

Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for yucks; the re-enactment of the telecast is genuinely stirring. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on the charming 1997 dramedy The Castle (recommended!).

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre labelled Cinéma du look (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional).

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never recorded a studio album and stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

An enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules bootlegging the concert, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Diva is an entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) to a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) confides to Jules. Slick, stylish and thoroughly engaging.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s clever script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.

Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has an improvisational feel; and feels as fresh and innovative as when it first hit theaters all those years ago. I still catch subtle gags that surprise me (like John snorting the Coke bottle). Music highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and the fab title song.

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Harold and Maude – Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only society would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is just shy of 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s polar opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that manages to be life-affirming. Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins (who would later write and direct Foul Play and 9 to 5) wrote the screenplay. Outstanding soundtrack by Cat Stevens.

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Local Hero –This low-key, observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals, a “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ll ever see.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films I have become  emotionally attached to, usually for reasons I can’t completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in their twilight years with disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpected deep bond turns into a transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver mesmerizing performances. I feel an urge to watch it right now.

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My Neighbor Totoro  – While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits.

It’s a lovely tale about a young professor and his two daughters settling into their new country house while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring and stumbles into the verdant court of a “king” nestled within the roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (an amalgam of every plush toy you ever cuddled with as a child).

Granted, it’s Miyazaki’s most simplistic and kid-friendly tale…but that’s not a put down. Miyazaki’s usual themes remain intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements magical, yet the human characters remain down-to-earth and universally relatale. A charmer.

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Sherman’s March – Filmmaker Ross McElwee is one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been compulsively documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn the footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on “reality TV” may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings, and enjoying it just as much as the first time. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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The Thin Man – W.S. Van Dyke’s delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) never gets old for me. Story takes a backseat to the repartee between private investigator (and perpetually tipsy socialite) Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitations; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. Not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, long-form music video, and mockumentary. The vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never attempted to compile a Top 10 list of my all-time favorite films (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at an empty page for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m certain Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Now, attempting to describe this film is something else altogether.

If I told you it’s about an angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin in a trench coat, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and follows her home, wallows in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…you’d probably say “That sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh nervously and say, “Oh, look at the time.” Of course, there is more to it-about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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 The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s one thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for his chance to pop out of a box and sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal

Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-TV era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Marvel-less: Top 10 of 2022

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2022)

It’s time for the obligatory list, culled from the first-run films I reviewed in 2022:

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Day by Day – Felix Herngren’s dramedy (scripted by Tapio Leopold) is a delightful, life-affirming road movie from Sweden about…death. Before a terminally ill man (Sven Wallter) can make his getaway for a solo trip to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic, several of his longtime friends at the retirement home catch wind of his plans, and it turns into a group outing (much to his chagrin). Lovely European travelogue (nicely photographed by Viktor Davidson). Funny and touching (yes …I laughed, I cried). Sadly, Wallter passed away soon after the film wrapped, adding poignancy to his performance.

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Drunken Birds ­– Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional, and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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The Integrity of Joseph Chambers – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance.

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The Man in the Basement (aka L’Homme de la Cave) – There are fifty shades of Chabrol in Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann).  One of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One) plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage. With the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple realize too late that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they find out that his online persona is every liberal’s nightmare. Always check references!

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Moonage Daydream – David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Of all his personas, “David Jones” is the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy film, even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself. This is anything but a traditional, linear biography. Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones remains elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is absorbing and ultimately moving. Think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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My Love Affair With Marriage – It’s a safe bet that the most oft-asked question throughout history (well, after “Where’s the restroom?”) is “What is love?”. Philosophers, poets, writers, psychologists and even scientists have tackled this age-old query, and come up with just as many disparate explanations. This lack of consensus informs the clever conceit behind Latvian animator Signe Baumane’s mixed-media feature.

Baumane’s semi-autobiographical study follows “Zelma” as she navigates the various passages of sexual self-awareness from childhood to adulthood…which then presents her with the complexities of love and relationships. Zelma’s vignettes are interspersed with neuroscience/biochemistry analyses done in the style of high school educational films (remember those?), with the odd musical number thrown in. Funny, touching, and insightful.

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Nude Tuesday – I must warn you: this film (from New Zealand) is complete gibberish. Literally…the dialog is spoken in a made-up language. Frankly, I was fully prepared to find this gimmick annoying, but thankfully a) there are subtitles and b) the film is nonetheless entertaining.

Writer-director Armagan Ballantyne’s off-the wall dramedy concerns middle-aged couple Laura and Bruno (co-screenwriter Jackie van Beek and Damon Harriman), who have hit a roadblock in their marriage. Bruno’s mother browbeats them into attending a couple’s retreat, to rekindle their passion. The resort is lorded over by a free-spirited sex guru (played with aplomb by Jemaine Clement). Vacillating between riotous cringe comedy and surprising sweetness, the film also pokes gentle fun at “self-actualization” culture (reminiscent of Bill Persky’s 1980 satire Serial).

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Sweetheart Deal ­– Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.

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Polystyrene: I Am A Cliché – I reckon few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She not only fearlessly waded into the male-dominated punk world of the late 70s (which, despite its association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was an overtly “laddish” club), but did  so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and a unique, powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to this absorbing documentary (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk. A lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist. (Full review). (Streaming on Hulu)

Honorable mentions:

A couple of 2022 releases I didn’t initially review, but recommend:

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Kimi– I somehow missed this tight little thriller from Steven Soderbergh when it dropped on HBO Max earlier this year, but stumbled across it recently (so much content, so little time). Zoe Kravitz gives a terrific performance as an agoraphobic tech who works from home for a corporation called Amygdala, monitoring their A-I product “Kimi” (rhymes with “Siri”). When she happens across a digital file that may have captured audio of a woman’s murder, her world gets turned upside down. A clever mash-up of Rear Window, Repulsion, and The Conversation, with a whiff of The Parallax View… updated for the age of pandemic paranoia. David Keopp scripted.

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Confess, Fletch – First, my confession that I’ve always had a soft spot for the first Fletch film with Chevy Chase (never saw Fletch Lives). But I was intrigued to see a resurrection of the franchise 33 years after the previous entry, and pleasantly surprised at how entertaining Greg Mottola’s adaptation of Gregory McDonald’s eponymous 1976 comedy-mystery was. I swear Jon Hamm is channeling Cary Grant throughout, and he is ably supported by a delightful cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Kyle MacLachlan, and Roy Wood, Jr. Granted, it’s lightweight fare, but I haven’t laughed this hard at a modern comedy for grown-ups in quite some time.

…and just for giggles

Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 16 years?! I was but a child of 50 when I began in November of 2006 (I was much older then, but I’m younger than that now). Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing for Hullabaloo.

(You may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Desert One, Love Spreads, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Pacified, 76 Days, Tommaso, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Weathering With You

2021

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Fire Music, Heist of the Century, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, The Last Film Show, The Paper Tigers, The Pebble and the Boy, Surge, Waikiki, Whelm

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2021

By Dennis Hartley

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

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‘Tis the season for the obligatory year-end roundups, so for your consideration (or condemnation) here are my top 10 picks out of the 50+ first-run films I reviewed in 2021:

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Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road – It has been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. Brent Wilson’s documentary borrows the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” concept, following Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine and Brian Wilson as they cruise around L.A., listening to Beach Boys tunes. Fine gently prompts Wilson to reminisce about the personal significance of various stops along the way. Most locales prompt fond memories; others clearly bring Wilson’s psyche back to those darker places he’d sooner forget. A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait.

(Full review )

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Fire Music – Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, director and co-writer Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s unravels a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked an amazingly rich and creative period for the genre. Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that has erased the contributions of the profiled artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping that enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.

(Full review )

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Heist of the Century – A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote.

(Full review )

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Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time – Director Robert Weide (best known as a director and producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm) offers an apologia in his 40 years in-the-making portrait of literary giant Kurt Vonnegut for being “one of those directors” who interjects himself; to his credit he stays fairly unobtrusive (over the decades filmmaker and subject developed a genuine father and son closeness until Vonnegut’s death in 2007). Still, this is no hagiography; Weide doesn’t sugarcoat the bad patches nor the darker sides of Vonnegut’s personality. An intimate, inspiring, funny and deeply moving portrait of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Weide’s film beautifully illustrates how loss and trauma can be spun into gold by the alchemy of an inventive imagination.

(Full review )

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The Last Film Show – Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows are obvious touchstones, but Nalin puts his own stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a poetic love letter to the movies.

(Full review )

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The Paper Tigers – It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s dramedy wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but was shot in Seattle. Tran subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining The Karate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in his tale of three former teenage kung fu champions, now riddled with the baggage and infirmities of middle age. What separates this from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, intelligent dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still lots of fight scenes, expertly choreographed and exciting to watch. I hope this little gem finds a wider audience.

(Full review )

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The Pebble and the Boy – 19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent demise. John not only inherits his father’s house, but his Lambretta scooter, bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Initially, John puts it up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter dad’s ashes in the sea. Chris Green’s comedy-drama is an entertaining road movie; a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth, in the manner he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor.

(Full review )

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Surge – It is clear from the outset that Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw), the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s unsettling yet curiously liberating drama would feel better if he could just …SCREAM. And once that dam bursts, Joseph’s frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting. I know what you’re thinking…but while you may think you know where things are headed, this unique film confounds expectations at every turn.

(Full review )

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Waikiki – This shattering psychological drama (written, directed, produced, and edited by Christopher Kahunahana) is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in a bravura performance) who is at a crossroads in her life. She suffers PTSD from an abusive relationship. She is temporarily homeless and living in her van. She juggles several part-time jobs, including bar tending and teaching hula. One night, upset and distracted following an altercation with her ex, she hits a homeless man with her van. From this point onward the film takes a tonal shift that demands your complete and undivided attention.

(Full review)

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Whelm – Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, writer-director Skyler Lawson’s debut feature centers on two brothers: Reed (Dylan Grunn) and August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. Desperate for money, the siblings get in over their heads with a suave, charismatic but felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). Equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy. A handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. The film evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

(Full review )

Honorable mentions…

 

Beans

The Beatles: Get Back

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James

Kubrick by Kubrick

Larry Flynt for President

When Hitler Stole White Rabbit

Whirlybird

White Riot

Wild Men

Zappa

…and just for giggles

Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 15 years?! I was but a child of 50 when I began in November of 2006 (I was much older then, but I’m younger than that now). Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing for Hullabaloo.

(You may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Desert One, Love Spreads, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Pacified, 76 Days, Tommaso, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Weathering With You

Happy Marxist Day: The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

https://i1.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/image-2.png?w=780&ssl=1

“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”

– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:

Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.

Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:

Oh, dear.

(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)

Is social justice the same as socialism?

Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”

Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.

Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.

Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle

So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?

Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?

In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:

…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.

Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.

However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).

In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).

Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.

Sing us out, Billy Bragg…