Category Archives: Documentary

Lazy, hazy, crazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2024)

Since it’s now officially 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:

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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 2024: Linda Perry: Let it Die Here (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2024)

Initially bursting onto the music scene in the early 90s by creating and belting out the most distinctive “yeah yeah yeah” hook this side of The Beatles’ “She Loves You” (“What’s Up”), Linda Perry has long since slipped the surly bonds of “4 Non-Blondes’ lead singer with the hat” to become an in-demand songwriter and producer for a number of notable artists (Adele, Christina Aguilera, Brandi Carlisle, Miley Cyrus, Celine Dion, Gwen Stefani,

What makes this otherwise by-the-numbers music doc (directed by Don Hardy) really pop is its subject herself: charismatic, indomitable and boundlessly creative. One sequence, which observes Perry as she improvises, produces and arranges one of her own songs (essentially directing an orchestra on the fly) is one of the most riveting captures of the creative process I’ve seen on film since Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil.

Tribeca 2024: Alien Weaponry: Kua Tupo Te Ara (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2024)

Kent Belcher’s documentary opens with home movie footage of two boys around age (7? 8?) jamming out on drums and guitar. The guitarist/vocalist appears to be improvising his (mostly indecipherable) lyrics, but his committed, full-throat delivery suggests he could grow up to be the next Tom Araya.

Brothers Henry (drums) and Lewis (guitar/lead vocals) de Jong did in fact grow up to be luminaries in thrash-metal circles. The Waipu, New Zealand-born siblings formed the band Alien Weaponry in 2010 (with the full encouragement of their parents, who also assumed managerial duties). What made the band unique (aside from the fact that they were all of 9 and 10 at the time) was the integration of Māori culture and language into their music.

Belcher documents the band over a several year period, tagging along on road tours and an important gig at a major thrash metal festival. While the usual “rockumentary” travails ensue (backstage squabbles, bruised egos, and the inevitable creative differences), the strength of family and cultural bonds trumps all. An honest and ultimately heartwarming profile.

Tribeca 2024: S/He Is Still Her/e: The Official Genesis P-Orridge Documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

The title of David Charles Rodrigues’ documentary is a mouthful, which is somehow appropriate because the subject of his film was a real handful. My previous awareness of P-Orridge was only through their involvement with the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic T.V., but this unblinking portrait reveals that there was a hell of a lot more going on in that noggin (performance artist, poet, occultist). A fascinating and eye-opening look at someone who not only lived for their art, but over the course of a lifetime, literally molded themselves into a piece of living art.

Tribeca 2024: Hacking Hate (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

Move over, Lisbeth Salandar…there’s a new hacker in town, and she’s stirring up a hornet’s nest of wingnuts. Simon Klose’s timely documentary follows award-winning Swedish journalist My Vingren as she meticulously constructs a fake online profile, posing as a male white supremacist. Her goal is to smoke out a possible key influencer and glean how he and others fit into right-wing extremist recruiting.

Vingren is like a one-woman Interpol; her investigation soon points her to U.S.-based extremist networks as well, leading her to consult with whistle-blower Anika Collier Navaroli (the former Twitter employee who was instrumental in getting Trump booted off the platform) and Imrab Ahmed (another one of Elon Musk’s least-favorite people, he was sued by the X CEO for exposing the rampant hate speech on the platform).

This isn’t a video game; considering the inherently belligerent nature of the extremist culture she is exposing, Vingren is taking considerable personal risk in this type of investigative journalism (she’s much braver than I am). Especially chilling is the shadowy figure at the center of her investigation, who is like a character taken straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel. In light of the high stakes of our own upcoming presidential election and the ancillary right-wing extremist threats, this could be the most important documentary of 2024.

Tribeca 2024: Brats (***)

By Dennis Hartley

Linndrums,  teen angst, and synths…oh my! If you are of a certain age, you may recall a distinctive sub-genre of of films that propagated in the early-to-mid 80s. More often than not, they were directed by John Hughes, targeted to appeal to a mid-teens to early 20s audience, and featured mix-and-match ensembles of fast-rising young Hollywood stars like Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, John Cryer, Judd Nelson, et. al.

In 1985, 29 year-old pop culture writer David Blum did a lengthy profile in New York magazine that was initially intended to focus solely on Emilio Estevez. However, after carousing for a few days with Estevez and some of his contemporaries, he came up with a hook for his piece, christening this core group as “The Brat Pack”. The term stuck, becoming ingrained into the pop culture lexicon.

One of those young actors was Andrew McCarthy (Class, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero). For his engaging documentary, McCarthy set  out to track down some of his fellow Brat-packers to get their take on how this reductive labeling affected their subsequent careers; was it a curse, a blessing, or a little of both?

While it’s fun to watch McCarthy and his fellow actors sharing war stories and commiserating on the ups and downs of early stardom, the most interesting segment is toward the end of the film, when he sits down with a wary and defensive David Blum. To his credit, McCarthy keeps it civil; that said, he does share his feelings with the writer vis a vis how hurtful the “Brat Pack” labeling was to him personally,  asking him if he thought it was “mean”. Blum’s pragmatic response reminded me of the sage advice given to the budding journalist in Almost Famous: “Never make friends with the band.”

SIFF 2024: Scala!!! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

Lester Bangs defined ‘punk’ as “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.” That philosophy informed the programming for Scala cinema, where the audience was as outrageously transgressive as the film fare. Ditto Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s documentary, which earns a 3 “Fuck off” rating!

SIFF 2024: Resynator (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

[shakes fist] “Curse you, Robert Moog!” They say history is written by the winners. Director Alison Tavel’s documentary may reinforce that adage. For as long as she can remember, Alison has been told that it was, in fact, her dad (who passed away when she was 2 months old) who was the “true” inventor of the synthesizer; namely, a prototype he dubbed as “the Resynator”. While not a musician herself, Tavel has pursued a career in the business as a roadie (currently for Grace Potter), which put her in a position to pull a few strings and do some detective work. Her subsequent journey to discover (and document) the truth of the matter is at once a fascinating glimpse into the fickle nature of the music biz and a genuinely touching story of a young woman finally “meeting” the father she never got to know.

SIFF 2024: Luther: Never Too Much (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

I confess entering Dawn Porter’s Luther Vandross profile knowing little about the late singer beyond his association with David Bowie and a string of smooth groove hits I recall spinning on the AC radio station I worked at from 1983-1991. I emerged from this documentary with a new-found respect for the artist, learning that he also wrote and/or co-wrote a number of them (including hits for artists like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Cheryl Lynn). Porter weaves a generous portion of archival performance clips and interviews with present-day recollections by creative collaborators and music mavens. An engaging, inspiring and ultimately moving portrait of an immensely talented artist who was not without his personal demons.

SIFF 2024: Hitchcock’s Pro-Nazi Film? (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 11, 2024)

I’ve always considered Alfred Hitchcock’s1944 war drama Lifeboat (about a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a U-boat) as a sharply observed microcosm of the human condition. However, Daphné Baiwir’s documentary sheds a different light, recalling a critical backlash from some who condemned the film as pro-German (an aspect I had never really considered before). A fascinating look at Hollywood in the 1940s, and the effects of war hysteria.