Category Archives: Culture Clash

Blu-ray reissue: Year of the Dragon (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Year of the Dragon – Warner Brothers

This brutal, visceral crime thriller/culture clash drama from 1985 is one of writer-director Michael Cimino’s most polarizing films. Nonetheless, it has garnered a sizable cult following over the years.

Co-written by Oliver Stone and based on Robert Daley’s novel, Cimino’s follow-up to his critically drubbed 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate (no pressure!) divided both critics and audiences with its uncompromising take on gang violence, the international drug trade, and ethnic stereotyping.

Mickey Rourke stars as a decorated NYC police captain newly assigned to Chinatown who embarks on a single-minded mission to bust up the various criminal enterprises run by the district’s powerful triads (by any means necessary). Rourke’s combative “cop on the edge” (also a Vietnam vet) is equal parts Popeye Doyle and Archie Bunker; his casual racism suggests that he may have not been the ideal political choice for this posting.

Rourke really pulls out all the stops. John Lone also does a great turn as his sociopathic nemesis, a politically savvy rising star in the Chinese mob.

As usual, Warner skimps on extras (there’s a commentary track by Cimino), but image and sound quality are tops.

Blu-ray reissue: Stranger Than Paradise (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Stranger Than Paradise – Criterion Collection

With this 1984 indie classic, Jim Jarmusch established his formula of long takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, evoking strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

Criterion’s restoration is beautiful. Extras include commentary by Jarmusch and Edson, and Jarmusch’s 1980 color feature debut Permanent Vacation (also restored).

Blu-ray reissue: The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Landlord – Kino-Lorber

Hal Ashby’s 1970 social satire follows the travails of a trustafarian (Beau Bridges) who buys a run-down Brooklyn tenement, with initial intentions to evict current residents and renovate (much to the chagrin of his blue-blood parents, who scoff at his “liberal views”). The landlord’s sincere but awkward attempts to “relate” to his black tenants is sometimes milked for laughs, other times for dramatic tension-but always rings true-to-life.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring Lou Gossett (with hair!), Susan Anspach (hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister) and Diana Sands. The scene where Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant get drunk and bond over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a classic. Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn’s observations about race relations in America are dead-on (and still timely).

Image transfer is sharp. Extras include interviews with Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, and producer Norman Jewison.

SIFF 2019: Go Back to China (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Writer-director Emily Ting’s family dramedy/fish-out-of-water story concerns a young woman (Anna Akana) living high off her trust fund in L.A. who gets cut off by her prosperous dad in China. If she wants back on the gravy train, he demands she must first come back to China for a year to work at his toy factory. Not groundbreaking-but all-in-all it’s an amiable, audience-pleasing charmer.

SIFF 2019: Driveways (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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There is beauty in simplicity. Korean-American director Andrew Ahn and screenwriters Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen have fashioned a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple (and oft-used) setup.

A single Korean-American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her recently deceased sister’s house, ostensibly to clean it out and sell it. To her dismay, she discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it looks like they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with their next-door neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet.

That’s it. I know…sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful; never preachy. Wonderful performances all around, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a particular standout.

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Blu-ray reissue: Dead Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering.

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with a semi-mystical Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic ethos. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

Criterion’s 4K digital restoration shows a marked improvement over a previously released Blu-ray from Lion’s Gate (showcasing the late Robby Mueller’s stunning B&W photography ). Extras include footage of Neil Young working on the soundtrack, a new interview with Farmer, and an entertaining Q & A produced exclusively for Criterion, with Jarmusch responding to inquires sent in by fans.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2018)

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first collective selfie…the “Earthrise” photo from the Apollo 8 mission. It may seem “ho-hum” now, but it provided a profound moment of “cosmic perspective” (if I borrow one of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite phrases) for anyone in the world who gave a damn.

The iconic portrait was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind the photo is recounted on NASA’s official website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

The Trump administration’s tumultuous first year has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.

Needless to say, many “updates” follow that intro (the most recent one is from April 6, and there will be more to come). Bookmark the link, if you dare (sick bag on standby).

So…are you doing anything special for Earth Day (April 22)? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one “pretty place”, best to my knowledge).

At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, here are my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. As long as you don’t print out a hardcopy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern is the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth). While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli:

 

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.