Category Archives: Documentary

Of spacemen and sidemen: Moonage Daydream (***½) & Immediate Family (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2022)

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Get out of my head…all of you.

– Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth

When a great artist dies, it is not uncommon to default to the old standby that “(he or she) meant so much, to so many people.” Of David Bowie (who returned to the cosmos in 2016), it may be more accurate to say that “he was so many people, who meant so much.”

Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Of his myriad personas, David Jones remains the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy Moonage Daydream (now on Blu-ray), even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is framed as a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself (think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs).

A caveat for fans: this is anything but a traditional, linear biographical portrait. Nearly all the “narration” is by Bowie himself, via strategically assembled archival interview clips (like the Beatles Anthology). Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of original Bowie music and scads of performance clips (the film was officially sanctioned by his estate, so I assume there were no licensing restrictions). The music is ever-present; just don’t expect it to be dissected and/or praised by the usual parade of musicologists and contemporaries.

While ardent fans (guilty) will recognize quite a few clips on loan from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: the Motion Picture (as well as other Bowie documentaries) there is some fascinating “new” footage here and there. A performance of “The Jean Genie” with Jeff Beck sitting in with the Spiders caught me by surprise (it was shot for Pennebaker’s 1973 film but had been omitted at Beck’s request). Beck and Mick Ronson are on fire, and it neatly closes the circle with the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” …the obvious inspiration for the song’s main riff.

The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to quote “Thomas Jerome Newton”, the alien played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film version of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man to Fell to Earth (screenplay adapted by Paul Mayersberg):

Television. The strange thing about television is that it – doesn’t *tell* you everything. It *shows* you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones’ “true mysteries” remain elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is quite absorbing and ultimately moving. And if you want to take the cosmic perspective, you, me and Moonage Daydream are all just waves in space…floating in a most peculiar way.

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There has been a proliferation of documentaries profiling legendary session musicians of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond who helped create the “soundtrack of our lives” (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Take Me to the River, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Hired Gun, etc.). One of the best of the batch is the 2008/2015 film The Wrecking Crew.

“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.

The eponymous film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.

Tedesco’s new documentary, Immediate Family can be viewed as a “sequel”, essentially picking up where The Wrecking Crew left off. While many of the musicians profiled in the former film continued to work through the ensuing years, a new crop of hired guns began to make a name for themselves. Tedesco focuses on four players: bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel.

The names may not immediately ring a bell, but once you can associate faces with them, you’ll smack your forehead and say to yourself “Oh…that guy!” (especially Wachtel and Sklar, who sport quite distinctive hair and beard styles, respectively). Together and collectively, the quartet has played in the studio and on the road with the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Don Henley, Keith Richards, and Phil Collins (all of whom are on hand to offer their two cents in the film).

Each of the four musicians have had fascinating journeys, and when you realize that their collective sessions number in the thousands, it’s impressive (and inspiring for those of us of a…certain age) that they remain so vibrant and productive well into their 70s. My favorite scenes were the road stories; Wachtel has the best ones, he’s quite the raconteur. His reminiscence regarding a night he and Linda Ronstadt hit a strip club had me rolling.

Other luminaries who show up include Lyle Lovett, Stevie Nicks and Neil Young, as well as producers Peter Asher, Lou Adler and Mike Post. The film does get a tad redundant with the praise, and I think the phrase “It was a magical time” has now officially worn out its welcome-or maybe I’ve seen too many music docs. Still, I had a good time hanging out in the studio with these folks, and I think the film should strike a chord with any true music fan.

The Docu-horror Picture Show: Top 13 documentaries for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 22, 2022)

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Hey…you wanna see something really scary? Real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never match the thrills, the chills…the abject horror of, say, watching the news, peeking in on your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for the upcoming election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.

So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 13 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?

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The Act of Killing – “At first, we beat them to death… [but] there was too much blood…to avoid the blood, I [devised] this system,” explains former Indonesian government death squad leader Anwar Congo, the “star” of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary, and then helpfully gives us an instructive (and macabre) demonstration of his patented garroting method (with the assistance of a stick, some metal wire, and a giggly “victim”).

Then, the eupeptic Congo breaks into an impromptu cha-cha dance.

This is but one of many surreal moments in Oppenheimer’s film (exec produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog). Congo is a self-described “gangster” who claims to have personally snuffed out 1,000 lives during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 “communists” that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government.

Congo and Koto were not only amenable to happily skip down memory lane revisiting the scenes of their crimes, but offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. This counter-intuitive mash-up of hard-hitting investigative journalism and ebullient “Hey, I have a barn, let’s put on a show!” participation from the very parties the filmmaker aims to expose could make some viewers’ heads explode.

I know what you’re thinking: These men are morally reprehensible, untouchable and beyond redemption, so why indulge them this sick fantasy? (Picture the warm and fuzzy feeling you’d get if the next Powerball winner turned out to be one of those 97 year-old former Nazi camp guards). What’s Oppenheimer’s point? Is he crazy? He’s crazy all right. Like a fox. Because something extraordinary happens to one of our “heroes” when he insists on playing one of his own victims in an execution reenactment. Watch it and be amazed. (Full review)

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

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

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Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting true-crime documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather pressures of the trial and the surrounding media circus .

The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)

The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.

Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects every life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Cruise– A number of years ago I became friends with a co-worker who would pace his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume his pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?

If you can take it, Bennett Miller’s one-of-a-kind 1998 documentary portrait spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s double-decked Gray Line buses. Levitch’s world view is …interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he yet another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The true horror of schizophrenia can only be known by those afflicted, but this 2005 rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is the next worse thing to being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between creative inspiration and mental illness most of his life (see: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).

As recounted in Jeff Feuerzig’s film, Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, repeatedly stumbles into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything is in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.

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Gimme Shelter – It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly known for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the infamous incident at a 1969 Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show)-but there you have it (and hence its inclusion here). Those scant seconds of the doc’s running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the top rockumentaries. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

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Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.

Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).

The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The cult appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation ran for 2 years.

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In the Realms of the Unreal-Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously composed in long hand over a period of decades (literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: A mythic universe largely populated by young, naked hermaphrodites (the”Vivian Girls”).

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an exhibit, which I had a chance to do at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum back in 2007). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work, with actors reading excerpts from the tome.

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An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. In Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 doc, former VP Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Buñuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – There was a fascinating documentary on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just folks from the office, hamming it up for the camera. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by an interviewee in Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The questioner is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators. The “answer” is complicated…and what ensues not easy to watch. Nonetheless, Morris’ film is a compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review).

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Zoo-It was disturbing enough when the Seattle press broke the story in 2005 about a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses. But when it was subsequently revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.

That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, writer-director Robinson Devor and his co-writer Charles Mudede maintain a sensitive, neutral tone throughout; the film is not as exploitative as one might assume.

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 8, 2022)

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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 7th, 2022 (and for the 2nd year in a row now) President Biden issued an official Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the sovereignty, resilience, and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world; and we recommit to upholding our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, strengthening our Nation-to-Nation ties.

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed from ancestral lands, displaced, assimilated, and banned from worshiping or performing many sacred ceremonies. Yet today, they remain some of our greatest environmental stewards. They maintain strong religious beliefs that still feed the soul of our Nation. And they have chosen to serve in the United States Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group. Native peoples challenge us to confront our past and do better, and their contributions to scholarship, law, the arts, public service, and more continue to guide us forward.

I learned long ago that Tribal Nations do better when they make their own decisions.  That is why my Administration has made respect for Tribal sovereignty and meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations the cornerstone of our engagement and why I was proud to restore the White House Council on Native American Affairs.  To elevate Indigenous voices across our Government, I appointed Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, along with more than 50 other Native Americans now in significant roles across the executive branch.

My Administration is also directly delivering for Native communities — creating jobs, providing critical services, and restoring and preserving sacred Tribal lands.  We have made the biggest investment in Indian Country in history, securing billions for pandemic recovery, infrastructural improvements, and climate change resilience, and we are working together with Tribal Nations to end the scourge of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

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.

Lord, I’m so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

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

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 August 6, 2022)

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Ah, the dog days of August-when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring super pets, UFOS, thunder gods, child supervillains or alpha fighter pilots with a need for speed; but if I’m 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 the Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a “Best of the Festival Festival” (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 – 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. (Full review)

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Bad Black– 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. (Full review)

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Becoming Who I Was – 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. (Full review)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – 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 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. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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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 critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

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. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV 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 somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare – 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)

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Nowhere Boy – 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. (Full review)

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Polisse – 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 (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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

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The Rocket – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a winning performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Telstar – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter – 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! (Full review)

You Will Go to the Moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

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

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53 years ago this week, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’ve heard this story a million times; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still feels like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still  big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

It is in this spirit that I have curated a NASA film festival for you. Blast off!

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary was a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller, who also produced and edited. Miller had access to a trove of previously unreleased 70mm footage from Apollo 11’s launch and recovery, which he and his production team was able to seamlessly integrate with archival 35mm and 16mm footage, as well as photos and CCTV. All audio and visual elements were digitally restored, and Miller put it together in such a way that it flows like a narrative film (i.e., no new voice-over narration or present-day talking heads intrude). The result is mesmerizing.

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Apollo 13– While overly formal at times, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist is still an absorbing history lesson. You get a sense of the claustrophobic tension the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have great natural chemistry as crew mates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, and Ed Harris was born to portray Ground Control’s flight director, Gene Kranz.

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The Dish– This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I recommend checking out: The Castle (1997).

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The Farthest–  Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made 2017 documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

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For All Mankind– Former astronaut Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary was culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts over a period of years. Don’t expect standard exposition; this is simply a montage of (literally) out-of-this-world imagery with anecdotal and philosophical musings provided by the astronauts. Brian Eno composed the soundtrack. A mesmerizing visual tone poem in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary (similar to For All Mankind) is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with an exhilarating sense of rediscovery.

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The Right Stuff– Director and writer Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring drama about NASA’s Mercury program. Considering the film was modestly budgeted (by today’s standards), it has quite an expansive scope. The rich characterizations also make it an intimate story, beautifully acted by a dream cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out… Moxy Fruvous.

 

Inconceivable differences: Battleground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2022)

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41% of Americans believe Jesus will come back by 2050.

Rolling Stone journalist, from the 2022 documentary Battleground

If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

-from Hannah and Her Sisters, screenplay by Woody Allen

When I switched on the news and saw a coterie of fresh-faced female activists literally cheering the Supreme Court’s reactionary ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, I reflexively yelled at my TV (imitating Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) …

“Who ARE you people?!”

Well…

The rollback of abortion rights has been received by many American women with a sense of shock and fear, and warnings about an ominous decline in women’s status as full citizens.

But for some women, the decision meant something different: a triumph of human rights, not an impediment to women’s rights.

“I just reject the idea that as a woman I need abortion to be successful or to be as thriving as a man in my career,” said Phoebe Purvey, a 26-year-old Texan. “I don’t think I need to sacrifice a life in order to do that.”

The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was a political victory, accomplished by lobbyists, strategists and campaign professionals over the course of decades. But it was also a cultural battle, fought by activists across the country including those in the exact demographic that abortion-rights advocates warn have the most to lose in the new American landscape: young women.

Often pointed to by anti-abortion leaders as the face of the movement, a new generation of activists say they are poised to continue the fight in a post-Roe nation. Many, but not all of them, are Christian conservatives, the demographic that has long formed the core of the anti-abortion movement. Others are secular and view their efforts against abortion as part of a progressive quest for human rights. All have grown up with once unthinkable access to images from inside the womb, which has helped convince them that a fetus is a full human being long before it is viable.

Many believe the procedure should be banned at conception — that even the earliest abortion is effectively murder. But they embrace the mainstream anti-abortion view that women are victims of the abortion “industry” and should not be prosecuted, putting them at odds with the rising “abolitionist” wing of the movement calling for women to be held legally responsible for their abortions. And overwhelmingly, these young women reject the notion that access to abortion is necessary to their own — or any woman’s — success.

That’s nice. So…who ARE you people?

In my 2013 review of the documentary Let The Fire Burn, which recounted what led up to a 1985-gun battle between Philadelphia police and members of the MOVE organization (resulting in the death of 11 of its members, including 5 children), I wrote:

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So, what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, “it” would be:

…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Now, I’m not drawing a direct comparison between the “new generation of [anti-abortion] activists” mentioned in the New York Times piece to members of The People’s Temple or the Branch Davidians; although the anti-abortion movement does share certain theological roots, and its history is not violence-free (clinics bombed, doctors murdered).

One thing apparent in Battleground, Cynthia Lowen’s timely portrait of three pro-life activists (Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, and self-described “atheist/liberal/pro-lifer” Terrisa Bukovinac, executive director of the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising) is her subjects’ evangelical fervor for their political cause. Put another way, these chirpily hell-bent Christian soldiers all appear to have supped deeply of the sacramental Flavor-Ade.

Lowen opens her documentary with chilling audio-only excerpts (that I’ve never heard before) from a closed-door meeting held 40 days before the 2016 elections between then-candidate Donald J. Trump, members of his inner circle and leaders of the religious right:

Male 1: We’ve all been paid handsomely by the Trump organization.

Male 2: I don’t know about you, but let me just tell you, I do what Mr. Trump says, right? [laughter]

Trump [entering the room]: Hello, everybody. [half-jokingly] This is real power! […]

Steve Bannon [addressing the religious leaders]: The key that picks the lock to this election…is you. Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals who have not voted, who have not been motivated to vote, have to come to the polls. If we don’t win on November 8th, it’s because Evangelical and Catholic leaders have not delivered. Your fate is in your own hands. […]

Pastor Robert Jeffress: There is only one candidate running in this election who is pro-life, pro religious liberty, pro-conservative Justices to the Supreme Court, and there is only one candidate who treats the views of conservative Christians with respect…and that candidate is Donald Trump. […]

Trump: And this president could choose, I mean it could be five. It’s probably going to be three. It could very well be four, but it could even be five Justices. So you get a Hillary Clinton in there, and it’s over. […]

There’s more, but if you were awake and cognizant during the 4 (endless) years of the Trump administration, you’ve already had a major spoiler as to whether that promise was kept.

The anti-abortion forces had another (arguably even more powerful) political ally—Senator Mitch McConnell, who is shown in the film addressing a Susan B. Anthony List meeting:

As Senate Majority Leader, one thing that I get to do that the other 99 [senators] don’t get to do is to decide what we’re going to do. [pauses for laughter] And obviously, that was on full display when I decided not to fill the Scalia vacancy. [cheers and applause].

Oh, that Mitch…he’s a caution, isn’t he?

McConnell may have been winking at the choir with his braggadocio, but the power that one man holds in context of America’s increasingly polarizing culture wars is frightening. As Lowen points out in her Director’s Statement, “Abortion is the low-hanging fruit that compels anti-choice voting blocks to the polls, and what’s at stake is a much broader agenda: the end of separation between church and state. Outlawing abortion is just the beginning.”

Battleground is a thought-provoking, well-made study, but it’s a bit of a dilemma as to whether I can “recommend” it…it’s almost too close to this week’s headlines for its own good (“Tell me something I don’t know.”) Political junkies likely will not find its lede revelatory; namely, that there has been a well-organized, highly motivated political machine laser-focused on overturning Roe v. Wade for decades.

That said, now that it appears anti-abortion activists are one step closer to their coveted “post-Roe nation”, it’s critical “someone” (in this case, a filmmaker) bears witness and documents that moment Reality caught up with the cautionary adage “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Tribeca 2022: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Flying saucer, take me away. In 1971, the year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mother ship with their breakthrough album Electric Warrior. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before splitting in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Tragically, Bolan died in a car accident in 1977 at 29. An amazingly prolific songwriter, he left behind a substantial catalogue and a legion of fans.

Ethan Silverman’s film traces Bolan’s career, weaving in footage from the sessions for the 2020 multi-artist tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex (Silverman was also involved in the production of the album). In addition to archival Bolan interviews and T. Rex performances (much of the latter taken from Ringo Starr’s 1973 Born to Boogie doc), tribute album participants like U2, Nick Cave Joan Jett, and Rolan Bolan weigh in. There are also comments (some archival) from Gloria Jones, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Tony Visconti, Ringo and Cameron Crowe.  While it may not be a definitive portrait, it’s a heartfelt nod to a rock icon whose lasting influence cannot be overstated.

Tribeca 2022: Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Andrew Jenks’ documentary connects the dots between two uniquely American traditions: Appalachian folk art, and shoppers trampling each other at Black Friday sales (“USA! USA! USA!”). But seriously…Cabbage Patch Kids. I’m old enough to remember the phenomena, but when they hit store shelves in the early 80s, I was in my mid-20s and too old to care.

Irregardless, I found some parts of the origin story weirdly fascinating, particularly the brick-and-mortar “hospital” where purchasers could view their doll’s “delivery” (from a head of cabbage) and then sign official “adoption papers” (more akin to Motel Hell than a Disney movie). And then there were the plagiarism lawsuits. Not essential viewing, but if you’re in the mood for a fun wallow in 80s nostalgia, you’ll dig it (hey…it’s even narrated by Neil Patrick Harris).

Tribeca 2022: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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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.