Category Archives: Documentary

Blu-ray reissue: Essential Fellini (Box set)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Essential Fellini – Criterion Collection box set

With such a rich oeuvre to cull from, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it’s taken this long for someone to curate a decent Federico Fellini collection. That said, Criterion’s 2020 box set proves worth the wait. Predicated on the 100th  anniversary of Fellini’s birth, the collection cherry picks 14 of the “essentials” from his catalog, from obvious choices like La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, , Amarcord and Juliet of the Spirits to previously harder to find early works like Variety Lights and The White Sheik. All the films have been newly restored.

As the set was released only several days ago, I haven’t had a chance to make a huge dent but the two films I have watched are impeccably restored (I started with 1950’s Variety Lights because I’d never seen it, and decided to feast on my favorite Fellini Amarcord on Thanksgiving…wow. Now that is one film the 4K restoration process was made for!).

Extras. Where do I start? Two feature documentaries…Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (great doc) and I’m looking forward to Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember (3 hours!). Also included is a restored version of the curio Toby Dammit. Starring Terrance Stamp, the 40-minute film was Fellini’s contribution to the 1968 horror omnibus/Edgar Allan Poe triptych Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim and Louis Malle directed the other two segments). There are numerous commentary tracks, TV interview segments, and more.

There are two books, one is a guide to the films and the other contains essays. It’s all housed in a sturdy album-sized box, with the discs secured in “coin collector” style pockets (similar to Criterion’s lovely Bergman box set released back in 2018).

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2020)

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In celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, here are 10 worthwhile films to check out:

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Arctic Son — I first saw this straightforward documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 documentary Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.

Stanley, Jr. has grown up in Washington State. Raised by his single mom, he has grown up to be more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse issues, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a more traditional subsistence lifestyle in the boonies of the Yukon Territories. The initially wary and sullen young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking and uncompromising look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

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Dead Man — 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.

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The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem 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 the 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 now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the general uproar and unsavory behavioral changes that the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful and happy little community, Xi decides to trek to “the edge of the world” so he can give the troublesome object back to the gods that made it. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in a sweet and endearing manner.

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies. A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

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Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity,

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Powwow Highway — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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This May Be the Last Time — Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey.

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Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David  Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can. Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.

To serve man: The Social Dilemma (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2020)

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“You know, one thing I learned from my patients… they all hate the phone company. It’s interesting; even the stockholders of the phone company hate the phone company!”

― from the 1967 social satire The President’s Analyst

“It’s not about the technology being the existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society…and the worst in society being the existential threat.”

― from the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma

“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

― from the 1931 horror classic Frankenstein

Just in: From the nanosecond you log in to a social media platform, you are being tracked. Not only are you being tracked, but you are being filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered (YOU are Number 6). In short: you are being bought and sold. That smart phone, laptop, or tablet in your hands is not the “product”. YOU are.

So like, wake UP, sheeple!

As I see you are currently busy checking Twitter notifications on your cell, I’ll cut to the chase. I recently observed a number of my friends on (wait for it) Facebook buzzing about the (relatively) new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, so I thought I’d check it out.

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.” “No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

― from the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.

― the “dilemma”, as posited on the official website for the film The Social Dilemma

Directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice) the film operates from the premise that (with all due respect to the late great Douglas Adams) the “strange unaccountable feeling” you may have “that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister” is in fact not “just perfectly normal paranoia.” This is not a dream…this is really happening.

Sinister terms like “data mining” and “surveillance capitalism” may elicit yawns or shrugs from a generation that assumes laptops, cell phones and the internet are immutable elements of human existence, but Orlowski offers a twist by having the architects of social media utter dire warnings you’d normally only expect to hear coming from the lips of members of the anti-Big Tech conspiracy fringe.

These are not minor players; people like VR guru Jaron Lanier, former head of Pinterest Tim Kendall, Center for Humane Technology co-founders Aza Raskin and Tristan Harris, Facebook “like” button co-creator Justin Rosenstein, et.al. Orlowski also enlists academics, like Harvard University professor/social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff and Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic Chief/psychiatrist Anna Lembke.

It is not just a cliché that we are “addicted” to our cell phones, to Facebook, to Twitter, to email; scrolling away hours, days, weeks, months of our lives as we circle down the rabbit hole (“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,” observes one talking head in the film). How do we escape this time-sucking alternate reality? Ironically, Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier offers the most pragmatic advice-in essence saying “Just unplug yourself, stupid.” Easier said than done, grasshopper.

Even some of the people who have helped create “virtual” addiction admit they can’t stop getting high on their own supply. Again, these are the very smart, self-aware men and women “behind the curtain” who have basically distilled all the trickery and mind games that magicians, con artists, used car salesmen and revival tent evangelists have perfected over the centuries into algorithms.

OK…Orlowski’s film is somewhat depressing, especially if you expect light at the end of the tunnel. But it is timely, considering that the November 3rd election looms. You know how people say, “our country has never been more divided”? According to some of the interviewees, the reality may be our country has never been more manipulated. One says:

The manipulation by third parties is not a ‘hack’. The Russians [in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election] didn’t ‘hack’ Facebook. What they did was they used the tools that Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and for legitimate users. And they applied it to a nefarious purpose.

So what he is saying (if I read him correctly) is that the Russians were merely using the tools of capitalism to do exactly what they are designed to do: reap a profit (in this case, they would gain political capital, one assumes). This is a profound observation, the more I think about it. And it reminds me of this evergreen monologue (delivered by Ned Beatty) from the 1976 film Network (directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky). To wit:

There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

Plus ca change.

The Social Dilemma also touches on what has become the greatest bane of social media: fake news. One of the tech insiders offers this less-than-comforting thought:

Algorithms and politicians are becoming so expert at how to trigger us …getting so good at creating fake news that we absorb it as if it were reality and confusing us into believing those lies. It’s as if we have less and less control over who we are and what we believe.

I guess I’ll leave you with that happy thought, because I must go check my email.

(The Social Dilemma is currently streaming on Netflix)

Please rewind: 10 Eighties Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection, put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. No reason for it, although the possibility exists that 7 months into the pandemic hunker-down, I am running low on novel “theme night” ideas. Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Comfort and Joy – This quirky1984 trifle is from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into an existential crisis. Soon after lamenting to his skeptical GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The movie is chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are quite authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: it might take days to get that ice cream van’s amplified tape loop out of your head (“Cheerio, folks!”).

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind the creation of writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.

Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (a wonderful Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she has been invited to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm, excellent as always), which leads to an unexpected and bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark and uncomfortable themes at work here; that said, there is also much sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley delivers a nuanced performance of a quality well beyond her chronological age as the young Alice, and the late great Jim Henson works his special magic with the creature creations for the inspired fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers – In this 1984 drama, director-writer Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about two 30-something pals who are both going through big transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as a petulant man-child named Blue, a starving artist who specializes in quasi-pornographic, fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has recently dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad that boasts a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also feeling emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be sorely tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a sharply observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on TV’s Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

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Light of Day – From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.

Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock’n’roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is also the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated but the Boss wisely decided to keep that little number for himself).

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Liquid Sky – A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score for his 1982 curio. Deeply weird, yet eminently watchable (I’ve seen it more times than I’m willing to confess in mixed company).

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid – I think that the thing I adore most about this criminally underappreciated 1987 dramedy from British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts fear and despise the most: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly. In other words, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other). In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches).

When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple. Wonderful performances abound (including the great Claire Bloom, and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift), buoyed by Frears’ fine direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 Brit-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains). The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui later helmed the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from Thom Bell, who skillfully manages to find the sympathetic humanity in an otherwise vile character. It’s unfortunate that Lloyd never broke big, going on to appear in only a few unremarkable projects and then dropping off the radar.

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Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Rescue me: Desert One (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2020)

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I recall my excitement when I was finally eligible to vote in a Presidential election. I was all of 20 and cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter. I confess I was not the political junkie I am now. Entering young adulthood in the Watergate era, I had reflexively teetered Left, and for reasons I could not articulate at the time, identified as a Democrat. I was savvy enough to glean the incumbent candidate’s pardon of Nixon smelled funny and I could not look at Ford without thinking of Chevy Chase’s SNL parodies. My horse won, and I was happy (beginner’s luck-as I have since learned “results may vary”).

Despite shifting appraisals as to whether Carter was a “good”, “bad” or “meh” President, I feel that I backed the right horse in 1976. In hindsight, whoever ended up occupying the Oval Office at that point in time was destined to face formidable challenges: “stagflation” of the American economy, a looming energy crisis, the Cold War…that’s just for starters.

However, the most defining crisis of Carter’s presidency began on November 4, 1979:

[From a 2006 Atlantic article]

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.

Washington, D.C., April 11, 1980, Noon

The meeting began with Jimmy Carter’s announcement: “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.”

Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, knew immediately that the president had made a decision. Planning and practice for a rescue mission had been going on in secret for five months, but it had always been regarded as the last resort, and ever since the November 4 embassy takeover, the White House had made every effort to avoid it. As the president launched into a list of detailed questions about how it was to be done, his aides knew he had mentally crossed a line.

Carter had met the takeover in Iran with tremendous restraint, equating the national interest with the well-being of the fifty-three hostages, and his measured response had elicited a great deal of admiration, both at home and abroad. His approval ratings had doubled in the first month of the crisis. But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. Three times in the past five months, carefully negotiated secret settlements had been ditched by the inscrutable Iranian mullahs, and the administration had been made to look more foolish each time. Approval ratings had nose-dived, and even stalwart friends of the administration were demanding action. Jimmy Carter’s formidable patience was badly strained.

And the mission that had originally seemed so preposterous had gradually come to seem feasible. It was a two-day affair with a great many moving parts and very little room for error—one of the most daring thrusts in U.S. military history. It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom. With spring coming on, the hours of darkness, needed to get the first part of this done, were shrinking fast.

Sounds like a Hollywood pitch, but it was a very real plan, and the stakes were high. What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, as painstakingly detailed in Barbara Kopple’s new documentary Desert One everything that could go wrong went horribly wrong.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream, Shut Up and Sing) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Jimmy Carter.

There are nearly as many moving parts in Kopple’s film as in the original mission plan and she assembles it all beautifully, like a tightly scripted thriller. She also captures the emotional trauma that still haunts many participants some 40 years on.

Kopple maintains a neutral political tone and injects some Rashomon-worthy moments (e.g. hostage and hostage-taker accounts of some events do not reconcile). Still, like any good documentary filmmaker she does not judge but leaves it up to the viewer to parse.

You could say Kopple had her work cut out for her. There is an oft-repeated cliché that “history is written by the winners”. That may be true in many cases, but there do not appear to be any clear “winners” in this instance. At the very least, it begs questions.

Yes, the hostages were eventually freed, and President Reagan certainly did not pass up a politically advantageous opportunity to position it as a “victory” for his new administration. But when you consider the Iranians purposely held off initializing the transfer until literally moments after Reagan was sworn into office, expressly so they could taunt departing President Carter…was it really a “victory” for Reagan?

Likewise, the Iranians have preserved the location of the failed 1980 mission to commemorate what they annually celebrate as their “victory” against a U.S. “invasion”. But considering there was no military engagement nor any awareness of the incursion until after the Americans had skedaddled, and the fact that Delta Force suffered its “defeat” due to bad luck and weather-can Iran claim it as a true “victory”?

It is way above my pay rate to answer such questions; you will have to watch this excellent, thought-provoking documentary and decide for yourself.

“Desert One” is now playing via SIFF’s Virtual Cinema platform.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2020)

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Hiroshima: nothing, nothing-
old and young burned to death,
city blown away,
socket without eyeball.
White bones scattered over reddish rubble;
above, sun burning down:
city of ruins, still as death.

-from Ruins, by poet, activist, and Hiroshima survivor Sadako Kurihara (1914-2005)

“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

This past Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). This year, they have released a special statement regarding this anniversary:

And so, on this awful 75th anniversary, the Doomsday Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight. The Science and Security Board calls on all countries to reject the fantasy that nuclear weapons can provide a permanent basis for global security and to refrain from pursuing new nuclear weapons capabilities that fuel nuclear arms races. Rather than new weapons for new nuclear missions, new delivery systems such as hypersonic glide vehicles, or a resumption of nuclear testing, the United States, Russia, and the world’s seven other nuclear powers should set their technical sights on achievable milestones along the path toward arms control and eventual nuclear disarmament. […]

The final hurdles on the path toward reducing nuclear arsenals and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons entirely will be political rather than technical. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, solving major global problems requires international cooperation—and national leaders willing to seek it through verifiable global agreements and strengthened international institutions.

Seventy-five years after the first use of nuclear weapons and the founding of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we—all the members of the Science and Security Board—pledge to redouble our efforts to bring about a world in which the use of nuclear weapons is both unthinkable and impossible. On this tragic anniversary, we ask political and military leaders around the world to join us—to demonstrate that nuclear weapons do not create safety or security, but diminish them and threaten humanity’s future. With the fantasy that they are useful dispelled, nuclear weapons may come to be viewed for what they are—a costly and dangerous detour from the path toward real global security.

As the scientists said, the clock ticks and global danger looms. I probably needn’t remind you that an increasingly less than-“stable genius” sits in the White House, with those nuclear codes at his fingertips. With those happy thoughts in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go).

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era (Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project, John Badham’s War Games, et. al.)

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but Duigan capably juggles this mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Stars ‘n’ Bars: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (***½) & The Go-Gos (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

— Charles Bukowski, from his novel Women

You have likely heard the cliché that the Eskimos have 50 words for “snow”? This is, of course, not 100% true. What we have here, is failure to communicate. What we do have here is a case of “polysynthesis” …which means that you have a base word (in this case, “snow”), which is then attached to many different suffixes which change the meaning. In this context, the Inuit and Aleut folks have hundreds of ways of describing snow (I know. This sounds like something the drunk at the end of the bar would say…just stay with me).

I would wager that anyone who has ever spent a few hours down at the local pub would concur with me that there are just as many different descriptive terms for drunks. Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…you get the picture. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in the extraordinary Sundance hit Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. At least that is the premise I bought into hook, line, sinker, and latest issue of Angling Times. It was only after I saw it that I discovered this little tidbit via IndieWire:

Except that in reality, that bar is still open, it’s in New Orleans, and the patrons gathering for one last hurrah were cast by the filmmakers Turner and Bill Ross.

As Johnny Rotten once said, “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Sheepishly, I read on:

The night before the film premiered to rave reviews at Sundance, the Ross Brothers sat down, at a bar over beers, for a 70-minute interview with to discuss how they made “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” and the inevitable questions they knew it would unleash. From the Ross Brothers’ perspective, this, their fifth feature film that has everyone at Sundance talking, is simply the natural evolution of their process as filmmakers.

“With our first film we cast a broad net, we spent 100 hours and a year of life with people until we realized you could fish, how you could wait for these moments, find these moments, and then as we got further and further along, how can you can feed a situation where you create a dynamic situation that might be conducive to what you are looking for,” said Turner. “And we’ve gotten further along into this fifth feature. Well actually can we create a dynamic scenario where we could provoke or create situations where we might elicit these authentic found moments we’re looking for.”

That their work has been embraced and supported by the part of the documentary community that sees nonfiction filmmakers more as artists using form than documentarians practicing journalism, has given the brothers a supportive community and place in the filmmaking world. The flip side is that it’s an association that puts them on one side of the increasingly useless binary of nonfiction vs. fiction that defines most film festivals, and that their latest film confounds.

I hadn’t felt this much like a dunce since the night I happened onto Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness while channel-flipping and got sucked into what I assumed was an obscure Werner Herzog documentary about the Loch Ness monster that I had somehow missed. I had no idea it was a mockumentary until the credits. Hook, line, sinker, and fake Nessie.

My bruised ego aside, I rather enjoyed Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (whatever the hell it “is”). Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. It is also a microcosm of human behavior, infused with all the alcohol-induced bathos you’d expect.

“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is now playing via SIFF’s Virtual Cinema platform.

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Here are 2 fun facts I learned watching Allison Ellwood’s rock doc The Go-Gos. I never realized they were the first all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to have a #1 album (I suppose that says something about the music biz that it took until 1982 for that precedent to be set?). I had also assumed they are inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are not (WTF?) That shows how much I know.

The band has also been overdue for a feature-length career retrospective; Ellwood’s film offers an absorbing portrait of the groundbreaking quintet’s rise, fall and resurrection(s).

The film begins with their D.I.Y. roots in the burgeoning L.A. punk scene of the late 70s, and goes on to recount the shuffling of various personnel that eventually settled into the now-classic lineup of lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Jane Weidlin (both original co-founders) guitarist-keyboardist and  backing vocalist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine, and drummer Gina Schock.

The doc does play like a glorified episode of “VH-1’s Behind the Music” at times, with the inevitable tales of bruised egos, backstage squabbles, drug addiction (and don’t forget rehab!)…but hey, that’s rock and roll. It’s nice to see the band recognized for their talent, influence and perseverance (hard to believe they have been around for 40 years). It’s also inspiring to see them together and producing new songs. They’ve still got the beat, baby!

“The Go-Gos” is now playing on Showtime cable and VOD.

Blu-ray Reissue: Salesman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Salesman – Criterion Collection

Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

Criterion has done their usual bang-up job here, starting with a new restored 4K digital transfer. There is a commentary track by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (from 2001). Extras include an archival 1968 TV interview with both Maysles brothers (sadly, all three directors are no longer with us).

The inclusion of “Globesman”, a spot-on 2016 parody of Salesman from the “mockumentary” IFC series Documentary Now! was a nice surprise (there’s also a short appreciation of Salesman by Documentary Now! co-creator Bill Hader).

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2020)

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(June 6, 2020)“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Frederick Douglass said that in 1852. In an infamous gaffe uttered while attending a breakfast with some African-American supporters in honor of Black History Month back in February 2017, President Donald J. Trump described the famed (and long-dead) 19th century abolitionist as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” In recognition of the fact that even a stopped clock is is accurate twice a day, and in light of the extraordinary worldwide protest movement that unfolded this past week in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic, senseless death, I am re-posting my 2019 Martin Luther King tribute .

(January 19, 2019)

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

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. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

Chicago 10

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Medium Cool

Secret Honor

— Dennis Hartley

Same as it ever was: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2020)

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“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

― from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

And thus spoke “Arthur Jensen”, CEO of fictional media conglomerate “CCA” in what is for me the most defining scene in director Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 satire. Jensen (wonderfully played by Ned Beatty) is calling “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a President of the United States who is Tweeting and making public statements in TV interviews and press conferences (in a very “mad prophet of the airwaves” manner) that suggest he feels it’s more important right now in the midst of a still-raging pandemic to get everyone back to work than to save their lives. Because the economy. And per usual, Wall Street watches, waits and yawns while it gets a manicure.

You would almost think “someone” has handed the President a set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (akin to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). Or, at the very least-he opines from the perspective of someone borne of privilege and inherited wealth?

So how did the world become “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

It’s not like “the people” haven’t tried through history to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Take, for example the French Revolution, which ultimately did not change the status quo, despite the initial “victory” of the citizenry over the power-hoarding aristocracy. As pointed out in Justin Pemberton’s documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while there was initial optimism in the wake of the revolution that French society would default to an egalitarian model, it never really took.

Why? Because the architects of the revolution overlooked what is really needed to establish and maintain true equality: strong political institutions, an education system, health care (*sigh*), a transport system, and a tax system that targets the highest incomes.

Same as it ever was.

That, and financial inequality in general are the central themes in Pemberton’s ever-so-timely film, which is based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty.

Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. Focusing mostly on the last 200 years or so, it connects the dots between significant events like the aforementioned French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (which greatly expanded the boundaries of “capital” while driving an even deeper wedge between workers and factory owners), New World expansion (which spawned the slave trade), and the labor movements of the late 19th-to-early 20th Centuries.

While a lot of the historical review is disheartening, it is not all gloom and doom and “the system is rigged”. The film reminds us that there have been periods where egalitarian ideals have taken hold (the Roaring Twenties, FDR’s New Deal, the post-war rise of the middle-class). That said-1% of the world’s population still owns 70% of the land in 2020.

Will there ever come a time when economic equality “takes” for good? Maybe when an asteroid strikes the Earth and puts us all back on equal footing? My personal cynicism aside, Piketty and his fellow commentators do toss out possible scenarios that give you some hope; but frankly they all seem to be predicated on a wee bit of magical thinking.

Naturally, I was being facetious in the previous paragraph when I mentioned an asteroid striking the Earth. But history does indicate it takes some form of Great Equalizer to precipitate a shakeup in the status quo. As pointed out in the film, war is one example (WW 1 begat the Roaring Twenties, WW 2 begat the rise of the middle class, etc.). What about this pandemic? A killer virus doesn’t care whether you’re wearing a Bud-stained T-shirt or a Brioni suit; it’s just looking for the nearest warm body to attach itself to.

As the film was produced before Covid-19 shut down much of the world’s economy, it does not delve into the possibilities of a post-pandemic restructuring. As luck would have it though, a fitting postscript for my review presented itself the day after I screened the film when Thomas Piketty popped up as a guest on The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. Curiously, he was not there to promote the documentary, but did share some interesting thoughts on possible post-pandemic shifts in current economic models:

[Piketty] I think this is one of these crises we see that can really change people’s views about the world and how we should organize the economy. What we see at this stage is a big increase in inequality. […]

With this crisis right now, I think people are going to be asking for proof that we can also use this power of money creation and the Federal Reserve in order to invest in people; investing in hospitals, in public infrastructure, increasing wages for unskilled workers…all the low-wage and middle-wage people which we see today are necessary for our existence and our society.

In the longer run, of course we cannot just pay for everything with public debt and money creation…so we have to re-balance our tax system. […]

In the past three decades in America, we’ve seen a lot more billionaires; but we’ve seen a lot less growth. So in the end, the idea that you get prosperity out of inequality just didn’t work out. […]

[Noah] What do you think about the “worst case scenario”, then…if you live in a world where the inequality just keeps growing; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, what do we inevitably get to?

[Piketty] Well to me the worst scenario is that some skilled politicians like Donald Trump, or [President of the National Front Party] Marie Le Pen in my country in France will use the frustration coming from wage and income stagnation and rising inequality in order to point out some foreign workers or “some people” [are] to blame. […] And this is what really worries me-that if we don’t change our discourses, if we don’t come up with another economic model that is more equitable, more sustainable…then, in effect we re-open the door for all this nationalist discourse.

Trevor had to go there with the “worst case scenario”. But that does not mean that is where we must end up. I am not an economic expert, nor pretend to have the answers to such questions. However, one quote from the film stuck with me: “This logic of one dollar, one vote is completely opposed to the democratic logic of one person, one vote.” I am not taking that one to the bank; I’ll be taking that one to the polls with me on November 3rd-with fingers crossed.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is streaming through May 14 via Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema website . Proceeds are split to help support the theater during its current closure.