Category Archives: Documentary

Over the hills and far away: 15 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2024)

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With Saint Patrick’s celebrations in full swing this weekend, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations.

Sláinte!

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The Commitments – Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. The Commitments can be seen as a riff on Parker’s 1980 film Fame; swapping the locale from New York City to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working-class kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong. In 2007, cast member Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!).

Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing. “Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”.

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A Date for Mad Mary – Seana Kerslake makes a remarkable debut in Darren Thornton’s 2017 dramedy (co-written by the director with his brother Colin) about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20-year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Assuming that her volatile friend won’t find a date, Charlene refuses her a “plus one”. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists she will; leading to an unexpected relationship.

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem. It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comic in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations. An insightful and affecting glimpse at the human condition.

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Hear My Song – This charming, quirky comedy-drama from writer-director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones) concerns an Irish club-owner in England (Adrian Dunbar) who’s having a streak of bad luck. He’s not only on the outs with his lovely fiancée (Tara Fitzgerald), but is forced to shut down his venue after a series of dud bookings (like “Franc Cinatra”) puts him seriously in the red. Determined to win back his ladylove and get his club back in the black, he stows away on a freighter headed for his native Dublin. He enlists an old pal to help him hunt down and book a legendary tenor (Ned Beatty, in one of his best roles) who has hasn’t performed publicly in decades. Fabulous script, direction, and acting. Funny, touching and guaranteed to lift your spirits.

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I Am Belfast – I try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive if I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit.

I’m fairly sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (he waxes poetically about the aforementioned film in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). Lovely cinematography by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience for patient viewers.

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In Bruges – OK, full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a somewhat lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, then a third… I realized that I like this film quite a lot (happens sometimes…nobody’s perfect!).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it).

Writer-director Martin McDonagh (who deftly juggles “fook” as a noun, adverb, super adverb and adjective) re-enlisted In Bruges stars Gleeson and Farrell as the leads for his Oscar-nominated 2022 dramedy The Banshees of Inisherin (also recommended!).

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Into the West – A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one pretty pair o’ humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

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Miller’s Crossing–his 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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My Left Foot – The first (and best) of three collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This moving 1989 biopic concerns Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical challenges.

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity.

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar, as did Brenda Fricker, who snagged Best Supporting Actress as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s work as young Christy; he gives an equally impressive performance.

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Odd Man Out – An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with political undercurrents. The top-notch cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

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Older Than Ireland With age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they might smack you. Not that there is violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is consensus among interviewees (aged 100-113) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this moving and entertaining pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices, watch this wondrous film and plug yourself into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

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The Quiet Man – I’ll admit to never having been a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s perfect in this John Ford classic as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although tame by modern standards, romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara are quite fervid for the era. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

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The Secret of Roan Inish – John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have received a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal. Ork, ork!

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Song of the Sea – This 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth.

After his daughter is nearly swept out to sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a succession of characters that seem to have popped out of one of the traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

Moore’s film has a timeless quality and a visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is something in Moore’s hand-drawn animation that I find sorely lacking in the computer-generated “product” glutting multiplexes these days: genuine heart.

Lest we forget: Films (and thoughts) for Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2024)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/phil-cramer.jpg?w=510&quality=89&ssl=1Phillip Kramer (1892-1962)

The strapping young man in the photo above is my grandfather Philip Kramer (in his late teens or early twenties, to my best estimation). He immigrated to America from Bialystok circa 1910. While the area is now part of the Republic of Poland, Bialystok “belonged” to the Russian Empire when he lived there (ergo, he was fluent in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish).

One of the reasons his family emigrated was to flee the state terror inflicted on Russia’s Jewish population by Czar Nicholas (the Bialystok pogram of 1906 was particularly nasty).

I suppose I have Czar Nicholas to thank for my existence. If my grandfather had never left Bialystok, he never would have met New York City born-and-raised Celia Mogerman (the daughter of Jewish German immigrants). Consequently, they never would have fallen in love, got married, and had their daughter Lillian, who never would have met and fallen in love with a young G.I. named Robert Hartley (a W.A.S.P. farm boy from Ohio) at a New York City U.S.O. Club. They, in turn, produced…me (otherwise, you’d just be staring at a blank page here).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/36867554_10216247821138001_5944935354204160000_n.jpg?w=843&quality=89&ssl=1Two lovebirds on their honeymoon, 1955

Obvious personal reasons aside, I’m thankful that Phil got out of Dodge well before Hitler’s army divisions rolled into Poland in 1939. Needless to say, the Jews of Bialystok fared no better under the Nazi regime than they did during the reign of the Czar. Far worse, actually.

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So through luck and circumstance, Phil and Celie (flanking my mom in bottom row) enjoyed a wonderful life together, creating a quintessential American family. All three of their children did their part for the war effort. My uncle Irving (third from left in the top row) served in the USAAF (he was the radio operator on a B-25 crew that flew a number of missions over Germany). My Uncle Charles (not pictured) served in the U.S. Army (Pacific theater).

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My mother (center above) was too young to enlist in the military, but served in the Civilian Defense Force. The photo was taken on a Brooklyn rooftop during the war (interestingly, it took intervention by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to nudge the recruitment of women).

Thankfully, the Kramer family survived the war. But sadly a great number of their relatives who had remained in Europe did not. And many of them were victims of the Holocaust.

That is why I am thinking about all of them on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It appears I am not alone in this contemplation of fate, circumstance, and family roots; which is particularly…complicated this first Remembrance Day since the events of October 7:

Recently, my mother, who escaped Hungary as a young teen in 1943 as the Nazis were closing in, called me from her home in Jerusalem. She was quite agitated, asking why even Israel’s loyal friends seem to be promoting compromise on issues fundamental to its security. She begged me to speak to anyone and everyone I know, from community leaders to elected officials.

As the world marks Saturday, January 27, as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is clear that my mother needs no such day. The question the Jewish people must be asking is who will benefit from a day in January, 2024, designated to remember the Holocaust? […]

The United Nations, which at the initiative of its Israeli delegation designated the day back in 2005 to build Holocaust awareness and prevent further acts of genocide, now deploys the lessons of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. The U.N. has yet to condemn the explicitly and admittedly genocidal acts of Hamas against Israel on October 7 while its International Court of Justice is trying Israel for genocide in Gaza. If this is the result of remembering the Holocaust, we Jews would prefer they forgot about it. [,,,]

Everyday since Oct. 7, my mother is reminded of and haunted by the delusions of her grandparents and more than a dozen uncles and aunts who naively chose not to join her parents’ escape to Palestine as the Nazi menace spread, only to be turned to ashes in Auschwitz. She often muses aloud about how my father, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, would process October 7th in Israel, October 8th in Harvard, and October 9th in the UN.

It’s not easy being a Jewish American right now, which is why I’ve been reticent to share my feelings on the Israeli-Hamas war (aside from my initial reflexive expression of abhorrence to the prospect of more death and destruction in the region, regardless of who propagates it).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/54g6n0l17uw21.jpg?w=847&quality=89&ssl=1From “Harold and Maude” (1971)

There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

For example, here’s how some fine folks were reacting this morning on X to posts that merely acknowledged this commemorative holiday:

Those are some of the nicest ones. But you get the gist.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I just overreacting to a few internet trolls and a current presidential hopeful who, when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -stated that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Here’s hoping for some “improvement” going forward. That’s why it’s important to look backward sometimes at the lessons of history, so we remain aware of how we don’t want to be. Here are links to some films I’ve written about that might give us a good place to start:

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Aftermath

Big Sonia

Hannah Arrendt

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

The Invisibles

The Last Laugh

Black Book

Germans and Jews

Shalom Italia

Django

Inglourious Basterds

Harold and Maude

Green Christmas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2023)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace Too much informers and too much beast Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy Holidays! How about some good news? Via USA Today:

President Joe Biden announced Friday he’s issuing a federal pardon to every American who has used marijuana in the past, including those who were never arrested or prosecuted.

The sweeping pardon applies to all U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in possession of marijuana for their personal use and those convicted of similar federal crimes. It also forgives pot users in the District of Columbia. It does not apply to individuals who have been jailed for selling the drug, which is illegal under federal law, or other marijuana offenses such as driving under the influence of an illegal substance.

The implication of Biden’s pardon promises to have significant implications, as criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. However, the pardons do not apply to people who violated state law, and anyone who wants to receive proof of a pardon will have to apply through the Department of Justice.

Biden issued a similar pardon last year and promised future reforms. This year’s proclamation went further in that it forgave all instances of simple marijuana use or possession under federal law, including for individuals who have never been charged. It also expands Biden’s previous directive to include minor marijuana offenses committed on federal property. […]

The Biden administration recommended that the DEA reschedule marijuana use to a lower offense earlier this year.

A record 70% of Americans said in an October survey conducted by Gallup that marijuana use should be legalized. It is favored by a majority of Republicans. And it is highly popular among the liberals, Democrats and young Americans whom Biden hopes to inspire to vote for his reelection.

Recreational marijuana use is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is now widely allowed in the U.S. It is legal in 38 states.

Nice to see more and more forward-thinking states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. So I thought I would welcome the newbies to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary 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 Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and 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”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby:      

Blu-ray Reissue: Dance Craze (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2023)

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Dance Craze (BFI; Region ‘B’ locked)

In the book Reggae International, a collection of essays compiled by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, sub-culturalist Dick Hebdige writes about the UK’s short-lived yet highly influential “2-tone” movement of the early 1980s:

Behind the fusion of rock and reggae lay the hope that the humour, wit, and style of working-class kids from Britain’s black and white communities could find a common voice in 2-tone; that a new, hybrid cultural identity could emerge along with the new music. The larger message was usually left implicit. There was nothing solemn or evangelical about 2-tone. It offered an alternative to the well-intentioned polemics of the more highly educated punk groups, who tended to top the bill at many of the Rock Against Racism gigs. […]

Instead of imposing an alienating, moralising discourse on a popular form (alien at least to their working-class constituency), bands like the Specials worked in and on the popular, steered clear of the new avant-gardes, and stayed firmly within the “classical” definitions of 50s and early 60s rock and pop: that this was music for Saturday nights, something to dance to, to use.

In 1981, a concert film called Dance Craze was released. Shot in 1980 and directed by Joe Massot (The Song Remains the Same), it was filmed at several venues, showcasing six of the most high-profile bands in the 2 Tone Records stable: Bad Manners, The English Beat, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, The Selector, and The Specials.

I’d heard about this Holy Grail, but it was a tough film to catch; outside of its initial theatrical run in the UK (and I’m assuming very limited engagements here in the colonies) it had all but vanished in the mists of time…until now.

This film is nirvana for genre fans; all six bands are positively on fire (this is music for Saturday nights-I guarantee you’ll be dancing in your living room).  Thanks to cinematographer Joe Dunton’s fluid “performer’s-eye view” camerawork and tight editing by Ben Rayner and Anthony Sloman, you not only feel like you are on stage with the band, but you get a palpable sense of the energy and enthusiasm feeding back from the audience.

Luckily for posterity, Dunton originally shot the film in super 35mm. Coupled with the meticulous restoration (using 70mm materials), it looks and sounds superb (especially for a concert film of this vintage). Extras include a 34-minute episode of the BBC program Arena examining the 2-tone movement (from 1980), outtakes, previously unseen interview footage, and more. (Please note: This is a Region ‘B’-locked Blu-ray, and requires an all-region player!).

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2023)

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What a difference an administration makes.

On October 9th, 2020, the Former Occupant of the White House issued an official Columbus Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.

On October 6th, 2023 (and for the 3rd year in a row), in addition to an official Columbus Day Proclamation, President Biden issued an official Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation , which reads in part:

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the perseverance and courage of Indigenous peoples, show our gratitude for the myriad contributions they have made to our world, and renew our commitment to respect Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 

The story of America’s Indigenous peoples is a story of their resilience and survival; of their persistent commitment to their right to self-governance; and of their determination to preserve cultures, identities, and ways of life.  Long before European explorers sailed to this continent, Native American and Alaska Native Nations made this land their home, some for thousands of years before the United States was founded.  They built many Nations that created powerful, prosperous, and diverse cultures, and they developed knowledge and practices that still benefit us today.

But throughout our Nation’s history, Indigenous peoples have faced violence and devastation that has tested their limits.  For generations, it was the shameful policy of our Nation to remove Indigenous peoples from their homelands; force them to assimilate; and ban them from speaking their own languages, passing down ancient traditions, and performing sacred ceremonies.  Countless lives were lost, precious lands were taken, and their way of life was forever changed.  In spite of unimaginable loss and seemingly insurmountable odds, Indigenous peoples have persisted.  They survived.  And they continue to be an integral part of the fabric of the United States.

Today, Indigenous peoples are a beacon of resilience, strength, and perseverance as well as a source of incredible contributions.  Indigenous peoples and Tribal Nations continue to practice their cultures, remember their heritages, and pass down their histories from generation to generation.  […]

When I came into office, I was determined to usher in a new era in the relationship between the Federal Government and Tribal Nations and to honor the solemn promises the United States made to fulfill our trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations. That work began by appointing Native Americans to lead on the frontlines of my Administration — from the first Native American Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and dozens of Senate-confirmed Native American officials to the over 80 Native American appointees serving across my Administration and in the Federal courts. […]

We are also working to improve public health and safety for Native Americans. That is why I signed an Executive Order that helps us respond more effectively to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. And when we reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act last year, I was proud to include historic provisions that reaffirm Tribal sovereignty and restore Tribal jurisdiction. I have also requested a $9.1 billion infusion for Indian Health Services and asked the Congress to make that funding a mandatory part of the Federal budget for the first time in our history.

My Administration will also continue using all the authority available to it, including the Antiquities Act, to protect sacred Tribal lands.

Pledging to end the scourge of violence against human beings, but nary a peep about protecting monuments? Preserving sacred Tribal lands while (apparently) letting the National Garden of American Heroes go to seed? Where are your priorities, Joe?!

I mean…come ON, man!

At any rate…in honor of this coming Monday’s Indigenous People’s Day , here are 10 films well worth your time.

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Arctic Son — I first saw this documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 film 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. was raised in Washington State by his single mom. Consequently, he is more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territories. The initially wary 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 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 (beautifully photographed by the late Robby Müller).

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 an enigmatic Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic quality. 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 uproar and unsavory behavioral changes the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful community, Xi treks to “the edge of the world” to give the troublesome object back to the gods. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in an endearing fashion.

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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.

Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, and realistic character study is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding in the lead, as a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years. 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 a 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 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 and is 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 both history lesson and 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.

Star-making machinery: Milli Vanilli (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2023)

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“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – Johnny Rotten

In my 2015 review of Danny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew, I wrote:

“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons. […]

 Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with seemingly any other popular artist of the era you could name (The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, etc.).  […]

Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, they have got some great stories to tell). […]

One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the earliest recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.

That said, The Monkees were a “manufactured” pop act from the get-go; it was certainly no big secret that all four members were actors, hired to portray a fictional band in a TV series (fans couldn’t exactly claim that they were duped). And to their credit, band members did (eventually) write a few of their own songs, did all their own singing, and for live performances they played their own instruments as well.

Not surprisingly, the success of The Monkees spawned a number of TV musical sitcoms built around fictional bands, like The Archie Show (animated), Josie and the Pussycats (animated), and The Partridge Family. The Archies “band” scored the number one Billboard hit of 1969 with “Sugar Sugar”, selling 6 million copies (Ron Dante and Toni Wine were the studio vocalists). The Partridge Family (with vocals by actors Shirley Jones and David Cassidy, backed by members of The Wrecking Crew on the studio recordings) released  5 albums, even scoring a #1 hit in 1970 with “I Think I Love You”.

So it would appear that the majority of music consumers didn’t  feel compelled to investigate “who” wrote, sang, played on, or (for that matter) produced the record; they liked something  they heard on the radio, bought a copy, and didn’t give it much more thought.

Of course, there have always been music snobs:

“I just wanna hear the music…that’s all.”

Keep in mind, this was all pre-MTV. To be sure, music acts had been performing on variety shows from television’s inception (sometimes live, sometimes lip-syncing). Even pre-dating television, there were the “soundies” – short films containing single performances (filmed in 35mm and printed in 16mm for easier distribution to clubs, bars, eateries and other businesses outfitted with “movie jukeboxes”).

But once MTV signed on in 1981,  there was a paradigm shift in record company marketing strategies. To MTV execs, the music videos were  “content”, but to the record company execs, the videos were “free ads” to push product sales. As for viewers, it became more about the artist’s image and/or the clip’s entertainment value; one could argue that the music was secondary (I could name a lot of MTV “hits” from the 80s wherein, had I heard the song before seeing the video play on a continuous loop, I might have thought “meh”).

Hence, the artists who most quickly ascended to the top of the music video heap tended to be those who knew how to “make love to the camera”, (as opposed to the ability to hit a high ‘C’ or display mastery of an instrument). As a result, ripped physiques, fashion and choreography ruled the day…stagecraft over song craft. But hey…as long as it moved units and kept shareholders happy-[*chef’s kiss*]

Thus it was, in this milieu, that the curious case of Milli Vanilli unfolded…as recounted in Luke Korem’s documentary, simply entitled Milli Vanilli (streaming on Paramount+  October 24th).

If any act was tailor-made for the MTV fast track in the late 80s, it was Milli Vanilli. Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (who hailed from Munich, Germany) were impossibly good-looking dancers and singers* (*I’ll get to that in a moment) with undeniably charismatic stage presence. The duo seemingly zoomed in out of nowhere in 1989 with a debut album (Girl You Know It’s True) that went platinum 6 times and sold over 30 million singles. Heavy MTV rotation of their songs certainly contributed to their meteoric rise.

But alas, what the lords of MTV giveth…in July 1989, Milli Vanilli was performing at a Connecticut theme park, when something went horribly awry. In the midst of performing “Girl You Know It’s True”,  a disconcerting hard drive glitch left no doubt in the minds of concert attendees and viewers watching the live MTV broadcast that Pilatus and Moryan were lip-syncing. Embarrassed and flustered, Pilatus fled the stage in a panic, leaving Moryan and the band to vamp until he was coaxed back by emcee “Downtown” Julie Brown.

Weirdly, while the incident undoubtedly raised questions regarding the act’s artistic integrity, the show resumed and the crowd stuck with them, cheering and having a grand old time. And the duo still snagged a Grammy in 1990 for “Best New Artist”. Go figure.

Although public sentiment gradually turned against them (they became the butt of jokes, one of the vocalists on the records exposed them, and at one point the duo offered to give back their Grammys to quell the backlash), it wasn’t until late 1990 that the “mastermind” behind the act, manager/producer Frank Farian publicly admitted the con-and then promptly fired Pilatus and Moryan. While he appears in archival clips, Farian-who comes off as a cross between Phil Spector and Colonel Tom Parker-declined to appear in the documentary.

One of the declared aims of the film is to “pull back the curtain on the story that we thought we knew, but didn’t”. I’m not sure Korem quite achieves that goal (after all, this is an oft-told tale). The film works best in its moments of  emotional resonance, largely provided by Morvan, particularly when he  speaks of his challenging friendship with Pilatus (who sadly died in 1998 of a suspected accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose at age 32).

Were they victims of Farian’s Svengali-like sway, easily preyed upon and exploited…or were they willing participants in a con, seduced by the trappings of fame and success? Also worth contemplation-as someone in the film offers, “nobody involved in this committed a crime”.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room (briefly touched on in the film)-a story as old as rock ‘n’ roll-the exploitation of artists of color. I once had the privilege of interviewing the great Bo Diddley. He spoke at length about how white artists brazenly co-opted the Black artists’ innovations in the 1950s.  I’ll never forget how he framed it-he said “Elvis and those other guys took everything I did, threw it on the rock ‘n’ roll truck and drove it through town.” He also pointed out that he performed his signature tune “Bo Diddley” on The Ed Sullivan Show several months before Elvis’s first appearance on same. But historically, which appearance gets lauded as seminal?

While the Milli Vanilli story isn’t exactly that same scenario-you could say it’s “Elvis in reverse”. Producer Sam Phillips famously (or infamously) once  said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” Then one day, Elvis Presley walked into his Memphis studio (and the rest is history-although it was Colonel Parker who made the lettuce).  At any rate, Farian saw two charismatic black performers (and dollar signs), and the rest is…well, you be the judge.

One of the most fascinating revelations in the film is that on the original 1989 European pressing of Milli Vanilli’s debut album (titled  All or Nothing), Pilatus and Moryan’s names do not appear in the musician credits; whereas they are (falsely) credited in the subsequent U.S. release (re-titled Girl You Know It’s True). As I pointed out earlier, there are those who bother to read all the liner notes…and there are those who just want to hear the music. Caveat emptor.

Up the Workers: A Top 10 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 15, 2023)

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A GM I once worked for was fond of saying “everybody’s got two businesses…their own, and show biz” (usually under his breath after a meeting with one of our advertisers). It would be nice, but it is true that everybody can’t be a “star”…even for those whose only business is show biz. Take actors. This may be a difficult sell to the average working stiff, but not every person who acts for a living commands a 7-figure (or more) salary per-project; they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck like the rest of us.

In fact, out of the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, only around 2% make a living from acting jobs. As you are likely aware, this past Thursday SAG-AFTRA joined the members of the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines (the WGA has been on strike now for several months). The last time this confluence occurred was in 1960. And this time out, the issues at hand are more …complex:

SAG-AFTRA and the major studios remain at odds on a dizzying array of issues, as film and TV actors hit the picket lines Friday for the first time since 1980.

According to sources on both sides, the biggest sticking point is the union’s demand for 2% of the revenue generated by streaming shows. The two sides also remain far apart on basic increases in minimum rates, with the studios offering 5%, 4% and 3.5% across the three years of the contract, while the union is demanding 11%, 4% and 4%.

But that only scratches the surface. The parties are at odds on dozens of issues, only a handful of which have been publicly reported.

In some cases, the two sides don’t even agree on what the disagreements are. They engaged in a rare public back-and-forth Thursday over the use of artificial intelligence to replicate background actors.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s executive director, alleged that the studios want to pay an extra for one day of work to be scanned, and then reuse that likeness forever. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hotly disputed that, saying that its proposal explicitly limits the reuse to the project for which the extra was hired.

The Variety article delves deeper into the complexities; the bottom line is that a settlement may take some time. In the meantime, major studio movie and television productions have essentially ground to a halt. This work stoppage has far-reaching consequence, especially when you consider the on-set technicians and post-production personnel involved, not to mention service industry workers like janitors and caterers who all depend on the Hollywood machine for their living.

One interesting sidebar is how the tandem strikes are affecting a place located about a 2-hour drive from where I live… “Hollywood North”:

Rare twin strikes by Hollywood actors and film and television writers are casting a pall over British Columbia’s creative industry, which has become a hub for American film and TV production.

Known as “Hollywood North,” the Canadian province and the city of Vancouver comprise one of the largest production centers in North America, with more than 50 animation studios alone, employing up to 88,000 people, according to a provincial agency. It generated an estimated C$3.6 billion in revenue ($2.7 billion) in 2022.

Hollywood actors on Friday joined writers on the picket lines for the first time in 63 years. The unionized workers are demanding higher compensation in an era when streaming of movies and TV shows has reduced royalties for working-class actors.

Film production in British Columbia is down to “a trickle,” said Gemma Martini, Chair of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association and CEO of Martini Film Studios.

Creative BC, the government body responsible for promoting creative industries in the province, said in a statement it is “concerned for the workforce, companies, industry, and people.”

Since the 1990s, different levels of government have offered tax credits to the industry, adding to its appeal as a destination for movie production. Over the years, Vancouver, with its proximity to Los Angeles and prized locations, has emerged as an alternative hub for production and post-production activities, production executives said. […]

Reverberations that started on May 2 with the writers’ strike grew in British Columbia, where most productions have American components.

In a given week, British Columbia-based film location management company Location Fixer could have 15 active productions.

“Now,” said co-owner Synnove Godeseth, “we have zero.”

Godeseth estimates about 75% of her company’s business comes from U.S. productions. First the business was hit by the writers’ strike: “Because no scripts are being written, people aren’t coming to scout our locations.”

Now, the actors’ strike is taking a toll. Commercial shoots are helping – “that’s literally what’s keeping us afloat.”

Godeseth said she supports the striking workers “100%” and hopes for a swift resolution.

There are also reverberations rippling across the pond to the UK:

Among the productions in the UK that could be affected is Deadpool 3, starring Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, who were recently pictured suited and booted for their roles. The third installment of the Marvel antihero film franchise was due out in May 2024 but the strike could now change things. […]

Overseas productions, like Paramount’s Gladiator sequel, starring Paul Mescal and Denzel Washington, are also expected to be affected.

The new Gladiator is shooting in Morocco and Malta – but with plenty of British crews working on the production team.

The strike also affects promotional activity. Upcoming releases due to hold promotional events like press junkets and red-carpet premieres include Disney’s Haunted Mansion (released 28 July), a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (2 August), Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Agata Christie mystery A Haunting In Venice (15 September).

While writing for these projects is likely to be completed, the strike by performers will bring a stop to a large proportion of production work and cause havoc with scheduling. […]

Actors represented by SAG-AFTRA’s sister union, Equity, in the UK must continue to work as normal – the Hollywood strike does not apply to them.

Equity says “a performer joining the strike (or refusing to cross a picket line) in the UK will have no protection against being dismissed or sued for breach of contract by the producer”.

Even actors represented by both SAG-AFTRA and Equity may be required to work on projects being made in the UK, Equity said, due to UK employment laws.

In terms of TV, Warner Bros Discovery previously boasted about the minimal disruption of the writers’ strike to HBO projects like House of the Dragon series, filming in the UK, because scripts were complete.

Nonetheless, the strike by performers who are members of SAG-AFTRA means many fully written screenplays are now likely to be left sitting unused.

Series two of the Game of Thrones TV spin-off, with Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy, could now face delays, as well as the second series of The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge, and series four of Oscar-winner Gary Oldman’s Slow Horses.

It is believed side deals could be struck between guild performers and producers to enable certain projects to continue.

So many moving parts involved…here’s hoping this situation comes to a fair and equitable resolution. Meantime, in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and WGA I am re-posting my 2022 Labor Day piece.

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)

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Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead

-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?

I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).

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Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.

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Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.

Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.

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Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).

Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.

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On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Instant International Film Festival

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Ah, Summertime …when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens are Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring transformers, superheroes, archeologists, little mermaids, teenage krakens, or grown-up conspiracy theorists who battle fantasy villains in alternate universes; but if you are in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.

If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering film festivals for Hullabaloo since 2006. So if you’d rather pass on Indy Jones and satisfy your “indie” Jones instead, I’ve combed the archives and curated a “Best of the Festivals Festival” that you can program from the comfort of your living room (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).

These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!

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Another Earth (USA, 2011) – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Bad Black (Uganda, 2016) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Streaming free on tubi)

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Becoming Who I Was (South Korea, 2016) – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (USA, 2012) – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the power pop genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Streaming free on YouTube)

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Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (USA, 2021) – It’s been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. After a 2-year streak of hit singles about sun, surf, cars and girls (beginning with the 1963 release of “Surfin’ U.S.A.”), Wilson hit a wall. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series).

Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most innovative work of his career (Pet Sounds, in 1966). Wilson’s roller coaster ride was only beginning, with a number of well-documented ups and downs (personal and professional); but his unique creative faculties remained intact. Considering what he has been through, it is amazing Wilson is even alive to tell the tale.

Brent Wilson’s documentary borrows the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” concept, following Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine and Brian Wilson as they cruise around L.A., listening to Beach Boys tunes. Fine gently prompts Wilson to reminisce about the personal significance of various stops along the way. Most locales prompt fond memories; others clearly bring Wilson’s psyche back to dark places he’d sooner forget. What keeps the film from feeling exploitative is the fact that Wilson demonstratively trusts Fine (they are longtime friends). A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait. (Streaming free on PBS

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Drunken Birds (Canada, 2021) – Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (USA/Canada, 2021) – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

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

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he Integrity of Joseph Chambers (USA, 2022) – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance. (Rent on Google Play)

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The Last Film Show (India, 2021) – Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies. (Rent on Prime Video; free to Prime members)

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Love Spreads (USA/UK, 2020) – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.

“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto.

Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit This is Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs. (Streaming via Showtime on demand)

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Monkey Warfare (Canada, 2006) – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. Full review (Rent on Apple TV)

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Nowhere Boy (UK, 2009) – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Polisse (France, 2011) – Now here’s a thinking person’s alternative to the current (and dubiously tabulated) box office “hit” Sound of Freedom (which Digby wrote about earlier this week). Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011, this is a docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble. (Rent on Google Play).

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Settlers (UK, 2021) – Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller’s sci-fi drama is Once Upon a Time in the West on Mars. The story centers on 9-year-old Remmy (Brooklyn Prince), who lives with her settler parents (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) at a remote homestead. Following an attack by hostile parties and subsequent arrival of a drifter who claims that the homestead rightfully belongs to him, Sofia’s life (as well as the family’s dynamic) changes drastically. The story takes place over a 9-year period; with Nell Tiger Free playing 18-year-old Remmy. Not wholly original, but smartly written and well-acted, with great production design and cinematography (exteriors were filmed in South Africa). (Streaming on Hulu)

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Trollhunter (Norway, 2010) – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Streaming free on YouTube)

Lazy, hazy, crazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mid-August Lunch– This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the 2009 gangster drama Gomorra).

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

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

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. In a scene that reminded me of a classic sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a limited menu, but you’ll find every morsel worth savoring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribeca 2023: Rather (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2023)

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Few journalists have had such a long and storied career as Dan Rather; long enough for several generations to claim their own reference point. At the risk of eliciting an eye-rolling “OK Boomer” from some quarters, mine is “I think we’re dealing with a bunch of thugs here, Dan!” (others of “a certain age” will recall that as Walter Cronkite’s reaction to watching his colleague getting roughed up by security on live TV while reporting from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention). For Gen Xers, he’s the inspiration for R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”, which is what a pair of assailants repeatedly asked Rather during a 1986 attack in New York. To Millennials, he’s a wry and wise nonagenarian with over 2 million Twitter followers.

As evidenced in Frank Marshall’s documentary, the secret to Rather’s longevity may be his ability to take a punch (literally or figuratively) and get right up with integrity intact. All the career highlights are checked, from Rather’s early days as a reporter in Dallas (where he came to national prominence covering the JFK assassination) to overseas reporting for CBS from the mid-to-late 60s (most notably in Vietnam), to taking over the coveted CBS Evening News anchor chair vacated by Cronkite in 1981, and onward. An inspiring warts-and-all portrait of a dogged truth-teller who is truly a national treasure.