Category Archives: Conspiracy a-go-go

The ragman’s son: RIP Kirk Douglas

By Dennis Hartley

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Kirk Douglas December 9, 1916-February 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spartacus (HITZ on demand)

Paths of Glory (ScreenPix on demand)

Ace in the Hole (Paramount PPV)

Lust for Life (Xfinity PPV)

Seven Days in May (Warner Brothers PPV)

Out of the Past (Warner Brothers PPV)

Lonely Are the Brave (Universal PPV)

Detective Story (Paramount PPV)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (STARZ on demand)

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

Young Man With a Horn (Warner Brothers PPV)

The Bad and the Beautiful (Xfinity PPV)

Two Weeks in Another Town (TCM on demand)

I Walk Alone (Paramount PPV)

The Man From Snowy RIver (STARZ on demand)

Viral videos: 10 movies you never want to catch

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 1, 2020)

https://s2.reutersmedia.net/resources/r/?m=02&d=20200130&t=2&i=1483592981&w=780&fh=&fw=&ll=&pl=&sq=&r=2020-01-30T191508Z_14083_MRPRC2DQE9YESFR_RTRMADP_0_CHINA-HEALTHEerily deserted street in Wuhan, China this week (via Reuters)

This city is being closed off in a way that China has never done before — or even any other major modern city, really, hasn’t done it in recent times. [The Chinese government] quickly expanded it to not just Wuhan, but to other cities, so that there were tens of millions of people who were essentially forced to stay at home and not allowed to go out. They’ve just put in place the biggest lockdown that we’ve ever seen and what experts are saying is the biggest experiment in public health that they’ve ever seen.

That may read like a film treatment for an apocalyptic thriller, but it’s from a January 30th NPR broadcast of the New York Times-produced program The Daily. The comment was made by New York Times overseas reporter Javier Hernandez, who was being interviewed by the show’s host, Michael Barbaro. Hernandez was giving a chilling account as to what has been happening on the ground in China in the wake of the outbreak of Coronavirus. Barbaro followed Hernandez’s comment with this observation:

It’s hard to imagine most any other country being able to mount that kind of a response. I mean, I’m just trying to fathom an American city somehow being locked down.

[Hernandez] So this is what it looks like when China’s authoritarian system is in full force. There’s no choice for people to leave. Many people are stuck there. They are going to hospitals that are overcrowded, but they can’t get the health care they need. Doctors are complaining about a lack of medical supplies and critical items like masks and goggles. And you get the sense that people are kind of stuck with what they have, and that’s the bargain they’ve made by living in this system. They have no choice but to follow the government’s orders. They can’t push back. They can’t swim against the current here. Everyone’s essentially forced to comply with this mass lockdown. […]

China has built this system, this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party, you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad, you are the one who is going to take responsibility. You are the one who is going to fall. And this has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news. […]

[Barbaro] So by the time something like, say, a medical crisis gets really big, it may be too late for the local officials who have been trying to contain it themselves and keep it from Beijing.

[Hernandez] Exactly. These kinds of dynamics played a huge role in the scale of the SARS outbreak. It was clear in this case that local officials knew exactly what was going on. They knew that people were dying of this illness. But for months and months, they didn’t want to report it up the chain. Instead, they tried to cover it up. They tried to see if they could perhaps deal with it secretly, and maybe nobody would ever find out about it. They hoped that Beijing would know about it. But eventually it broke. […]

[Barbaro] So that [culture of covering up] had trickled down all the way to the frontline health care workers, who are supposed to be treating this and sounding the alarm.

 [Hernandez] Right. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out. And when you think about where this virus might be headed next — to other provinces, to other cities — you have to wonder if these same dynamics would be playing out again. If people will stay silent, if they will not report official cases, because they fear for their jobs and they fear for their livelihoods. […]

And so when you look at the culture, you wonder whether China can actually contain these viruses, whether we will continue to live in a world where the internal politics of the party are going to put lives around the world in danger.

Well, that’s not very…reassuring.

Of course, China is not the source of every virus outbreak. And now that the coronavirus has officially been declared a “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization, finger-pointing should be the last thing on the agenda. Health officials worldwide have mobilized, necessary precautions are being taken wherever practical, and scientific research has begun in earnest regarding the possible development of a vaccine.

In the meantime, wash your hands, eat your Wheaties, and then wash your hands again. Oh…and did you hear that the Doomsday Clock is now at 100 seconds to midnight? With those cheery thoughts in mind, here’s a few “viral” films you might want to, erm…catch:

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The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of all? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by screenwriter Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. The team is essentially restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this one a nail-biter from start to finish.

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Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2020…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem  immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”).

Screenwriter Dario Poloni blurs the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. Whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is that simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

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Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takes the network narrative formula that propelled his film Traffic and applies it to this cautionary vision of sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.

However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues.

By reining in his powerhouse cast and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it “real” (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering exercise.

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The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a NYC smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller.

Patient Zero is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City.

A montage depicting how city officials administer the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a health department worker offers a shot to one distrustful fellow, he says “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).

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The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 Will Smith version).

In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a ass-kicking babe in the Pam Grier mold.

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Panic in the Streets– While this is another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year- a little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).

Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald. Look for Zero Mostel in one of his earliest roles, and Jack Palance (this was his big-screen debut).

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Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have an indeterminate amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily a “death sentence”.

The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they (naturally) begin to fall in love (insert metaphor here; or as the old Burt Bacharach and Hal David song goes – “…you get enough germs to catch pneumonia.”).

What makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre is that while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question becomes not “can humanity be saved in time?” …but rather “can humanity make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”

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Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to avail himself of the perks at his disposal.

Court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes twists and turns, ultimately bringing him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude of the film gives you a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague in that era.

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Twelve Monkeys– Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of humanity. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he a delusional schizophrenic living in the year 1996? I’m not telling.

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28 Days Later– Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.

In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man, a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is in reality not “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way).

The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary.

Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

Just drifting: R.I.P. Buck Henry

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?

Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.

Mr. Braddock: Why?

Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.

Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?

Benjamin: No.

Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Benjamin: You got me.

– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast.  He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).

Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.

For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria, Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).

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Candy As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.

What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.

Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.

Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.

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Catch-22

Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.

Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.

Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet…Buck Henry did a pretty good job of condensing it into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a great director (Mike Nichols) and such a fabulous cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50-year-old film has improved with age.

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Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).

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The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.

Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).

This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).

Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. 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). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

Funny how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which he wrote back:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

Blu-ray reissue: The Andromeda Strain (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Andromeda Strain – Arrow Films Blu-ray

What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this film a nail-biter from start to finish.

Arrow has done an outstanding restoration job (sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative). The mono audio is clean and clear (highlighting Gil Melle’s electronic score). Extras include Bryan Reesman’s engaging commentary, critic appreciations, and more.

SIFF 2019: X: The eXploited (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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This dark, brooding neo-noir from Hungarian writer-director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros mostly succeeds at being dark and brooding. It begins promisingly with an interesting protagonist; a top-flight female police detective who has been relegated to desk duty because of an acute panic disorder, initiated by her late husband’s suicide (he was also a detective). Nonetheless, she is enlisted by a new department head to help investigate a string of suicides that may have been staged. Unfortunately, the film is ultimately bogged down by a murky, pointlessly byzantine plot.

SIFF 2019: The Realm (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In this conspiracy thriller, a low-level Spanish politician becomes an unwitting fall guy for the systemized corruption in his district. He decides to blow the whistle on his backstabbing colleagues before he is forced to resign his post. It’s a good premise and has a promising start, but the narrative becomes more and more preposterous, to the point of self-parody. I sensed the film makers were aiming for Three Days of the Condor…but unfortunately what they ended up with was this 2-hour turkey.

SIFF 2019: Cold Case Hammarskjold (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Initially, Mads Brugger’s documentary promises to be straightforward investigative journalism regarding the mysterious 1961 plane crash in Zambia that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsjkold. But around the halfway mark, Brugger pivots, now claiming (admitting?) it may all just be a wild conspiracy theory. Either way, it’s a riveting political thriller (and if true-very disconcerting). I was reminded of Orson Welles’ (more playful) semi-documentary ‘F’ for Fake, which teases the viewer’s perceptions regarding what it’s “about”.