Category Archives: Con Game

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

SIFF 2022: The Man in the Basement (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann)  stars one of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One). Cluzet plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage . However, with the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple discovers to their dismay that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they discover his online persona is every progressive liberal’s nightmare. A slow-burner with a key takeaway: always check references!

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2022)

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I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a (to quote Orson Welles) “ribbon of dreams” to begin with. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters and/or the movie audience are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Alphabetically…

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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. The most elegant “long con” in cinema…from both a narrative and visual standpoint.

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Carny–This oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) is set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival. Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey star as longtime pals and carnies who take a teenage runaway (Jodie Foster) under their wing and give her a crash course in the art of the con (i.e. hustling customers out of their hard-earned cash).

The story is elevated above its inherent sleaze factor by the excellent performances. Busey’s work here is a reminder that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

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Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve ball.

Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full Review)

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The Master– As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

I find it a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or be conned by an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure-Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver two fearless lead performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull. (Full Review)

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

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

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

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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, 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). Screenwriter Alvin Sargent adapted from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”. (Bogdanovich passed away in January 2022; I wrote a tribute piece.)

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The Servant – Joseph Losey’s brooding and decadent class-struggle allegory features the great Dirk Bogarde in a note-perfect performance as the “manservant” hired by a snobby playboy (James Fox) to help him settle into his upscale London digs. It soon becomes apparent that this butler has a little more on the agenda than just polishing silverware and dusting the mantle. Sara Miles is also memorable in one of her earliest film roles.

Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s striking chiaroscuro composition and clever use of convex mirrors (which appear to “trap” the images of the principal characters) sustains a stifling, claustrophobic mood throughout. If you’re an aficionado of the 60’s British folk scene, keep your eyes peeled for a rare (and unbilled) screen appearance by guitarist Davey Graham, featured in a scene where Fox walks into a coffeehouse. Harold Pinter’s screenplay was adapted from the novel by Robin Maugham.

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Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (don’t let your attention wane!).

Reviews were mixed when the film came out, but I think it’s high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rossellini. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

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The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

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The Usual Suspects –What separates Bryan Singer’s tightly-directed sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s is a great cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending.

The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

Freaks and geeks: Nightmare Alley (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2022)

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Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

-from The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman)

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

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

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

The film was considered such a downer that 20th-Century Fox all but buried it following its first run. In addition, legal tangles barred it from being reissued in any home video format until a 2005 DVD release. I was one of those noir geeks who literally jumped for joy when I heard the glorious news. I was even more excited when the Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray in 2021 that featured a sparkling new 4k digital restoration.

It was about the same time as the Criterion reissue last summer that I first heard there was a remake in the wings, scheduled for a December 2021 release.  I found the timing…interesting but shrugged and figured that if the new production had somehow expedited the long-overdue restoration and reissue of Goulding’s original version, then (to re-appropriate Elliott Gould’s catchphrase from Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye) “…it’s okay with me.”

After a relatively brief time in theaters, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley (adapted from Gresham’s novel by the director and Kim Morgan) has pulled up stakes, loaded up the wagons, and (as of February 1st) moved the carnival to HBO Max and Hulu.

Remakes (like carnivals) are a tricky business. You need a barker (or a director, if you will) who is skilled enough to convince the marks that if they depart with their hard-earned cash and buy a ticket, they are about to see something they’ve never seen before.

Therefore, I approach remakes, particularly of classic noirs, with trepidation; I’ve been burned too many times. Not that they can’t work. One example is Farewell, My LovelyDick Richards’ atmospheric 1975 remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). It isn’t “better” than the 1944 adaptation (which starred Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe), but stands on its own because it remains faithful to Chandler’s original milieu, and Marlowe is played by Robert Mitchum, whose own iconography is deeply tethered to the classic noir cycle.

Most often, I’m left thinking “Why ‘fix’ it if it ain’t broke?” As I wrote in my review of Roland Joffe’s 2010 remake of John Boulting’s 1947 noir, Brighton Rock:

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion.

While Riley’s portrayal of Pinkie has a brooding intensity, he lacks a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Alas, I think what we have here with del Toro’s Nightmare Alley…is a Pinkie problem.

I won’t bury the lede (although that may elicit a raised eyebrow if you’ve slogged this far through my windy ramblings). The new Nightmare Alley has a fine cast, led by Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, with support from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, and David Strathairn …but (and this is a big “but”) they are all window-dressed as noir archetypes, and given nothing substantive to do with their characters.

On the plus side, the first hour is an immersive dip into the carny world (but offset by the drag factor of the remaining 90 minutes of the film’s bloated running time). This is attributable to the work of the production designer (Tamara Deverell), art director (Brandt Gordon), set decorator (Shane Vieau) and costume designer (Luis Sequeira).

That said, style without substance can only carry a film so far; once the story moves from Carlisle’s work-study course under the tutelage of veteran “seer” Zeena (the always wonderful Toni Collette, who injects real heart into her character) and her longtime partner-in-bilking Pete (David Strathairn, also a standout), it flat-lines.

Factoring in my own admitted prejudices going in as a cultist devotee of the original, I wouldn’t discourage you from giving the wheel of fortune a spin to see if this iteration of Nightmare Alley lands in your wheelhouse; there is a certain amount of pulpy entertainment value (likely unintended) in Cate Blanchett’s hammy “no more wire hangers”-level turn as the shrink who conspires with Carlisle to fleece a millionaire (Richard Jenkins, also over-cooked here…especially in a “motherfucker”-laced Grand Guignol set-piece that would fit cozily into a Tarantino film).

But if your question is “Left with a choice to watch only one version, which one is the best?”, my crystal ball points to 1947.

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – 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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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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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Nightmare Alley (The Criterion Collection)

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 10, 2021)

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The Hot Spot  (Kino Lorber)

Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that Dennis Hopper is chiefly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir, based on Charles Williams’ 1955 novel “Hell Hath No Fury”.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

Kino’s 2K restoration is excellent; picture and audio quality display a vast improvement over the relatively lackluster 2000 MGM DVD. Extras include a new commentary track by entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman, new (short) interviews with cast members Virginia Madsen and William Sadler, and a remastered vintage trailer for the film.

Blu-ray reissue: A Little Romance (***1/2)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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A Little Romance – Warner Archives

This 1979 comedy-drama from George Roy Hill (with a screenplay adapted from a Patrick Cauvin novel by Allan Burns) is best described as a puppy-love Before Sunset.

A 13-year-old movie-obsessed French boy with an above-average IQ (Thelonious Bernard) Meets Cute with a 13-year-old American girl with an above-average IQ (Diane Lane) on a movie set in Paris. They encounter a grandfatherly rapscallion (a hammy Laurence Olivier) who convinces them that the only way to affirm their love is to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset. The trio hit the road to Venice-with authorities in pursuit (alerted by the kids’ concerned parents).

This is a wonderful film; warm, funny, and endearing. Full of great little touches, like in the opening scene where Bernard is watching an American western dubbed in French. The film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In a later scene, he and Lane happen into a theater showing The Sting (obvious in-jokes for movie buffs, as both of those films were directed by Hill!). Also, in the opening scene Bernard snatches the poster for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on his way out and gets chased down the street by the theater manager…an homage to the opening scene in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

Warner Archives’ Blu-ray is bare bones (only one extra feature, “Remembering Romance with Diane Lane” which I have not got around to watching yet) but the transfer looks to have been taken from the best elements available (if not  actually “restored”). The audio is presented in the original 2.0 mono, but with DTS-HD Master Audio enhancement.

‘Roids R Us: Screwball (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Did you know there is now a popular aggregator website called Florida Man, created to keep track of a seemingly endless stream of bizarre news items from The Sunshine State?

There is a possibility that the site is satirical. That said…the stories seem plausible to me.

It is in this spirit that one must dive headfirst into Screwball, the newest “is he making this shit up?” documentary from film maker Billy Corben (perhaps best known for his Florida drug trade trilogy-Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys 2 and Square Grouper).

I had some trepidation going in. On the upside, the film involves one of my favorite things (drugs). On the downside, it also heavily involves my least favorite thing (sports).

The subject of the film is Anthony Bosch, a Florida man (heh) who gained notoriety from his involvement in the Biogenesis “performance-enhancing drug” scandal back in 2013. Biogenesis was the name of Bosch’s clinic, where he “consulted” (“dispensed”, mostly) for a wide-ranging variety of clientele, from parents looking to juice up their kids’ performance on the school team to some very high-profile names in professional sports.

Bosch’s clinic had a shaky start. From a 2013 Miami New Times expose by Tim Elfrink:

Biogenesis’s history really begins in 2009, when Bosch started a firm, called Colonial Services, based in Key Biscayne.

That same year, on May 7, Major League Baseball suspended L.A. Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez after he tested positive for HCG — a women’s fertility drug often used at the end of a steroid cycle to restart testosterone production. Ramirez, who lives in Weston, issued a statement that a “personal doctor” had prescribed a medication he didn’t realize would violate the drug code.

Reporters at ESPN quickly identified that doctor: Pedro Bosch, whose son, Anthony, was “well known in Latin American baseball circles,” the network reported. “His relationships with players date at least from the earlier part of the decade, when he was seen attending parties with players and known to procure tickets to big-league ballparks, especially in Boston and New York,” ESPN wrote.

The DEA was “probing” both Bosches for their role in getting Ramirez the medication, ESPN reported. MLB President Bob DuPuy also confirmed he was “aware” of the investigation and cooperating.

Tony Bosch never responded to the allegations, but in a letter to ESPN, Pedro lashed back two weeks later, claiming that Ramirez was never his patient, that he’d “never prescribed” anyone HCG, and that there was no federal investigation. No charges were ever filed.

(Pedro Bosch was a defendant in an unrelated federal civil case that same year. The U.S. attorney accused him, along with more than two dozen other doctors and a similar number of lab owners, of running a kickback scheme to inflate drug costs. The government withdrew the claims two months later.)

While father and son both dodged a bullet in 2009, it’s a telling prequel to where Corben picks up the story; it also gives you an idea of what types of characters are involved. It is quite the tale, told by Anthony Bosch himself (along with some of his former associates).

Corben employs an interesting variation on the usual docudrama tropes. He uses child “reenactors” throughout the film. At first, it was distracting; it felt “gimmicky” and borderline precious. However, as the story gets wilder, the reenactments accrue more entertainment value (it’s the same quotient that makes Drunk History so funny). Bosch is quite the entertaining raconteur himself (as most bullshit artists and con men tend to be).

In fact, I was so entertained I nearly forgot how little I care about sports. Joking aside, the film is not so much “about” sports, as it is about the business of sports. It’s also about that peculiar obsession homo sapiens have with “winning”. In my 2013 review of Rush, I wrote this:

I’ll admit up front that I don’t know from the sport of Formula One racing. In fact, I’ve never held any particular fascination for loud, fast cars (or any kind of sports, for that matter). If that makes me less than a manly man, well, I’ll just have to live with that fact.

However, I am fascinated by other people’s fascination with competitive sport; after all, (paraphrasing one of my favorite lines from Harold and Maude) they’re my species. There’s certainly an impressive amount of time, effort and money poured into this peculiarly human compulsion to be the “champion” or securing the best seats for cheering one on; even if in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

There is an interesting political sidebar to the story. Turns out, Anthony Bosch is related to Orlando Bosch. From my 2007 review of the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro:

The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

Oh, what a tangled web you weave, Florida Man.

Who is America? – BlacKkKlansman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2018)

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“I-I am going to be a storm-a flame-
I need to fight whole armies alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals-
BRING ME GIANTS!”

-Edmond Rostand, from Cyrano de Bergerac

[To two members of the KKK, while pretending to capture Bart]

Jim: Oh, boys! Lookee what I got heyuh.

Bart: Hey, where are the white women at?

-from Blazing Saddles; screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger

To bring in something, such as a fish, by winding up the line on a reel.

-from The Free Dictionary definition of the phrase “reel something in”

So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s new joint, Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. It does contain laughs, but there is nothing funny about some of the reaction it has sparked after only a week. From an Indie Wire article:

[Actor] Topher Grace contacted police after receiving a threatening phone call reacting to his role as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in Spike Lee’s “Black KkKlansman”. According to reports (via TMZ) Grace told police that someone called him over the phone and referred to him using a gay slur. The mystery caller also warned Grace that his role as Duke would “ruin race relations in America.” […] Grace reportedly described the caller as “aggressive” and “angry.”

Speaking of “race relations in America”, here’s something even less amusing. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the U.S. And (to paraphrase Gimli the dwarf) it gets even better! If you go to the SPLC website and click the “100 Days in Trump’s America” report, there’s lots of fun facts:

As he spoke to the nation on Jan.20 [2016], President Donald Trump reminded white nationalists why they had invested so much hope in him as their champion and redeemer. He painted a bleak picture of America: a nation of crumbling, third-world infrastructure, “rusted-out factories,” leaky borders, inner cities wallowing in poverty, a depleted military and a feckless political class that prospered as the country fell into ruin. He promised an “America First” policy that would turn it all around. […]

Despite his failure to achieve any major legislative victories, Trump has not disappointed his alt-right followers. His actions suggest that – unlike the economic populism of his campaign – Trump’s appeals to the radical right did indeed presage his White House agenda. On Jan. 31 [2016], former Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “everything I’ve been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”

Well fuck me. There’s that fine fellow David Duke popping up again! When Mr. Wizard Tweeted he’d been “talking about” certain ideas “for decades” …he wasn’t exaggerating. The “David Duke” depicted in Lee’s film is the David Duke of the 1970s, right around the time he became the public face of the “National Association for the Advancement of White People”. This was also when he dropped the hood and robes for a suit-and-tie look.

True story. This window-dressing may have fooled some people, but it didn’t wash with Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate…and become a card-carrying member (!) of the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s. To address the obvious question, he didn’t crash a Klan rally and ask where all the white women were at, because 1) that would’ve gone over like a lead balloon with the goys in the hoods, and 2) again, Lee’s film is not a comedy (per se).

Stallworth ingratiated himself with the organization Cyrano style. He made them fall in love with him by proxy. The “Ron Stallworth” who wooed his local Klan by whispering sweet racist nothings over the phone was not the same “Ron Stallworth” who attended the meetings. That was Stallworth’s white surrogate, his Jewish undercover partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In other words, this was old school “catfishing”-if you will.

What ensues is the kind of story that frankly strains credulity…if it weren’t for the fact that this really happened (allowing for some creative license, naturally). Even Lee was skeptical at first, admitting in an interview that he did with Seth Meyers earlier this week:

“…when [co-producer] Jordan Peele pitched it to me, it was one of those very high-concept pitches. Six words: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ […] I thought of [comedy sketches done by] Dave Chappelle, but [Peele] said ‘no’ and he sent me the book. I was very intrigued by it…it was in my wheelhouse.”

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. The cast is uniformly excellent. Washington (son of Denzel) and Driver have great chemistry, and Grace captures Duke’s smarminess to a tee. Other standouts include Robert Lee Burke, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold and a genuinely scary Jasper Paakkonen.

Lee is aware he’s preaching to the choir and will never reach a certain percentage of the “fine people” in America…sadly, the very ones who would benefit most from his counsel. And if someone were to call Lee’s approach heavy-handed, I wouldn’t disagree.

He opens with the iconic crane shot from Gone with the Wind that pans over hundreds of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers and resolves with the tattered stars and bars. He cross-cuts a solemn Klan initiation rite with a monologue by revered civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, playing a man sharing a horrifying eyewitness account of a particularly gruesome 1916 lynching. In case you’re still unable to connect the dots between the Stallworth story with Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, he tacks on a timely denouement that jams to a screeching halt just inches away from slamming into “ta-da!”.

Yes, he ladles in on with a trowel. But you know what? The voices of reason in America are drowned out daily by the relentless clatter and din of Trump-fueled polarization and misdirection. He who shouts loudest wins (apparently). The hoods are off? Fine. I say more power to artists like Lee with something substantive to add to the conversation who feel they must (figuratively) bonk you over the head first to get your undivided attention.

Subtlety is prologue. Resist. Or get riled by seeing this film, immediately. Bring a friend.