Category Archives: Documentary

Cinema Therapy: 10 films that never let me down

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2020)

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and I’m getting emails like this:

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I’d reach for the Ben and Jerry’s…but my local grocery stores seem to be out of stock.

There’s been movement to offer first-run features online; Kino-Lorber will be launching “Kino Marquee” (which they refer to as “virtual screenings” as opposed to standard VOD) and Xfinity cable is now pushing a VOD feature called “Xfinity Movie Premiere”. I’d hazard a guess that other releasing studios and platforms will follow suit very shortly.

With more of us living la vida shut-in (as mandated by authorities and/or common sense), the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 10 personal faves that I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; films I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, feeling anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsating rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things are bound to get ugly, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about.

A unique film that fully engages the senses. Some may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a classic Greek tragedy; but it’s the final scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that always assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers.

Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Local Hero – This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

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The Maltese Falcon – This iconic noir, based on a classic Dashiell Hammett novel and marking the directing debut for a Mr. John Huston, is so vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist, that I don’t feel the need to recount the plot. Suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that.

Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Equally memorable performances from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre (“Look what you did to my shirt!”), Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook, Jr. round things off quite nicely. I’ve lost count on my viewings of this one.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films I have seen that I have become  emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them.

Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and the wonderful screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time.The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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Spirited Away – Innovative Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki has made a lot of great films, but this may well be his crowning achievement. A young girl and her parents inadvertently stumble into a resort spa reserved exclusively for traditional Japanese deities and other assorted denizens of the spirit world. Needless to say, this “security breach” throws the phantasmagorical residents into quite a tizzy; Mom and Dad are turned into barnyard animals and their daughter has to rely on her wits and previously untapped inner strength to save them. Visually stunning and imaginative nearly beyond description, it also tells a beautiful story-funny, touching, exciting and empowering.

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 86 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment.

Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t explain.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time, period full stop (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi (definite contenders) it is akin to the unenviable task of describing color to a blind person.

I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…well, you’d probably say “Dennis, that sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I also told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh and say “I’m being punk’d, right?” Of course, there is much more to it. It’s about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s always one particular thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for a chance to pop out of a box to sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal                                     Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-television era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Breaking Point: After Parkland (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mr. Guttenberg is an outspoken gun reform activist. His daughter Jamie was one of the students who was killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

From The Washington Post:

Clad in his trademark orange tie and ribbon, the guest of honor had reached his breaking point.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of slain Parkland student Jaime Guttenberg, simmered with anger during President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Trump discussed immigrants who committed crimes and declared that “human life is a sacred gift from God.”

Guttenberg thought something was missing. What about people killed by gun violence like his daughter, killed in a massacre at her high school in Florida? He leaned over to a fellow guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and said he was on the verge of losing it.

And when Trump said gun rights were “under siege all across our country,” Guttenberg did lose it, he said, and shouted about victims like Jamie.

“My emotions were stewing,” Guttenberg, 54, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, hours after he says he was handcuffed and detained by Capitol Police. “I was so upset.”

He roared at the tail end of an applause line from Trump, who said, “So long as I am president, I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

In a 2018 post that I wrote in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I opened with this excerpt from a previous 2016 post that I had written in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago, this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

It was déjà vu all over again. Further down in the piece, I wrote:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

So where are we at today, in the two years since a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Stoneman Douglas High, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in just 6 minutes? According to a 2019 AP story, a report issued in February of last year by a student journalism project “…concluded that  1,149 children and teenagers died from a shooting in the year since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” citing that the stats cover “school shootings, domestic violence cases, drug homicides and by stray bullets”. Mind you, nearly another year has passed since that report was released.

And that’s just children and teenagers. The mass shootings and other incidents involving gun violence occur with such frequency in the U.S. that it’s no wonder the “adults” who make the laws and run the country can’t seem to block out the time to actually “do” anything about it, what with all the “thoughts and prayers” that must be attended to first.

Perhaps that explains why it’s “the children” (for whom legislators always claim they’re “doing this for”) who have taken the lead, like Parkland survivors-turned activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Hogg and fellow survivor-activist Samuel Zeif are among those profiled in the new documentary After Parkland (on Hulu beginning February 19).

Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, the film also spotlights activist parents of Parkland victims, like Manuel Oliver (who lost his son Joaquin) and Andrew Pollack (who lost his daughter Meadow). The parents may not be in lockstep on legislative priorities (e.g. Pollack has become a “go-to” guest on Fox due to his more reactionary take on the mass shooting epidemic) but share an anguish no parent should have to suffer.

Politics take a back seat; this could be a deal-breaker for some on either “side” who may go in with expectations of polemical reinforcement. Instead, Taguchi and Lefferman (who filmed in the spring, summer and fall of 2018) have aimed for a candid yet still mindfully respectful portrait of how each family navigates all the inevitable stages of grief, culminating in the impassioned activism that we’ve all seen in the media coverage.

While After Parkland succeeds in conveying the emotional fallout left in the aftermath of tragedy, it becomes a bit repetitious; I think the directors’ decision to remain apolitical ultimately neuters the impact.

The most powerful moments are in the beginning, which contains a collage of real-time cell phone audio of the Parkland incident. The chilling sounds of automatic gunfire and students screaming in pain and terror made me think of the Martin Luther King quote ” Wait has always meant Never ”. If every lawmaker was locked in chambers and forced to listen to that audio on a continuous loop until they passed sensible gun reform, perhaps they would all finally reach their breaking point.

# # # #

Special note: On February 12th, there will be hosted screenings of “After Parkland” in over 100 cities in the U.S. to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Parkland shootings. The screenings are part of a nationwide “Day of Conversation” about gun reform, sponsored by organizations like March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and The League of Women Voters. To locate a February 12th screening near you, or to learn more about the Demand Film project and how you can organize screenings in your city, click here. DH

 

Ten years gone: Top 10 films of the last decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 25, 2020)

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Really? Another decade slipped by again when I wasn’t looking? This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the 400+ first-run films I reviewed between 2010 and 2019 and share my picks for the top 10 of the past 10 years. Happy viewing! Alphabetically…

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

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.

(Full review)

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Blade Runner: 2049 So many films passing themselves off as “sci-fi” these days are needlessly loud and jarringly flash-cut. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story is not as deep or complex as the film makers want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90-minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing and immersive. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

(Full review)

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Certified Copy – Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve-ball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture.

(Full review)

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Computer Chess – The most original sci-fi film of 2013 proved you don’t need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people’s minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to watch. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird…then weirder. Dig that final shot!

(Full review)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of  writer-director Wes Anderson. To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession. I kind of enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to Anderson’s previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

(Full review)

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Love and Mercy – Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years.

(Full review)

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The Master – As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take-down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver a pair of knockout performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull.

(Full review)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam. What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

(Full review)

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Samsara – Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity.

(Full review)

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed, and cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

(Full review)

 

 

 

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2019)

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“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

Where the deer and The Meat Puppets play: Desolation Center (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 21, 2019)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

From sacrificed spearheads to Burning Man, the one constant for humankind is the need for ritual. Ceremonies, whether somber or exultant, reinforce our sense of group identity.

In short, you gotta fight for your right to party. Even if it’s in the middle of the desert:

The promoter of an event set up around the “Storm Area 51” internet craze in the remote Nevada desert pulled the plug due to low attendance, but the host of a festival for several thousand people in the tiny town of Rachel said her show would go on.

“Area 51 Basecamp” organizer Keith Wright said that after drawing just 500 attendees at a Friday event planned for 5,000 at the Alien Research Center souvenir shop in Hiko, he had to pull the plug.

“We put on a safe event for the people that showed up,” Wright said. “But we had to make the decision today because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to staff each day.

“It was a gamble financially. We lost.”

Several dozen campers still at the site could stay until Sunday, he added.

In Rachel, Little A’Le’Inn owner Connie West said she was sad to hear the Hiko festival didn’t succeed. In a voice hoarse from stress and lack of sleep, she said a noon-to-midnight slate of “Alienstock” event musical entertainment would continue for the several thousand revelers camping on her property and nearby federal land.

“This is the most fabulous time,” West said. “I’m just so grateful that people came. This is their event as much as it is mine.”

Lincoln county sheriff Kerry Lee said it was “pretty calm” early on Saturday in Rachel and Hiko. In Nye county, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said no one showed up at a main entrance and an auxiliary gate at the once-secret Area 51 US air force facility.

Wehrly revised to 100 each the number of people who appeared at each of those gates early on Friday near Amargosa Valley, a 90-minute drive west of Las Vegas.

Lee, about a two-hour drive north of Las Vegas, said revelers gathered until about 4am at two gates between Hiko and Rachel, and said about 20 people broke from among revelers and “acted like they were going to storm but stopped short”.

Lee and Wright reported one arrest, for disorderly conduct, at the “Area 51 Basecamp” event.

Earlier, officials reported five arrests, including one man treated for dehydration by festival medics in Rachel.

Lee said a man reported missing on Friday morning after heading Thursday from a festival campground in Hiko toward an Area 51 gate was found safe in the evening.

The mood among the assembled remained mostly harmless. While costumed space aliens were a common and sometimes hilarious sight in events that began on Thursday, no one had reported seeing actual extraterrestrials or UFOs.

“Mostly harmless”. LOL. Somewhere out there in the ether, Douglas Adams is spinning.

The “Storm Area 51” meme may have fired the imaginations of millions earlier this week, but by Friday night it fizzled into several hundred disappointed people, standing in a circle somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert…who eventually began to dance.

I only bring this up because I watched a documentary Friday night that oddly mirrors the Area 51 gathering. While there’s naught to do with UFOs or government cover-ups, Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center does involve rituals, desert gatherings…and dancing.

Swezey, a scenester in the early 80s L.A. punk explosion, founded “Desolation Center”, a performance venue with no fixed geographical address. Desolation Center was an umbrella Swezey used for a series of guerilla music and art performances he organized in warehouses, lofts, and rehearsal spaces (think of it as a pre-internet “flash mob” concept).

According to one of the interviewees in the film, one of the main “inspirations” for the clandestine events was notoriously fascistic Chief of the L.A.P.D. Daryl Gates. Gates was no friend to the burgeoning punk scene; he deployed his officers to shut down club shows and generally harass punk fans whenever possible (never mind that despite the “in your face” posturing of the music and fashion, most of the kids were just having harmless fun).

Eventually, Swezey got the bright idea that if he staged his events out of town…like way out of town where Jesus lost his shoes, the performers and the audience would be free, free to ride without getting hassled by The Man. So it was that in April of 1983, he approached the LA band Savage Republic about doing a show in a dry lake bed near Joshua Tree. They were in. Once he talked The Minutemen into coming aboard, “The Mojave Exodus” was on. Swezey hand-crafted 250 cardboard tickets ($12.50 admission).

He distributed the tickets to record stores around LA; to his surprise they sold out. Using the money, he rented 3 school buses, a PA and a generator. In the film, Mariska Leyssius (a member of the band Psi Com) recalls how she assisted Swezey in organizing the event, as well as helpfully advising ticket holders to “keep your drugs and liquor below the line of the window” of the bus, in case they ran into cops during the road trip to the event site.

The event was a smashing success for all concerned, even if it failed to set the world on fire. The film documents The Mojave Exodus, as well as its follow-up, “The Mojave Auszug”, which took place in an isolated spot near Mecca, California in March of 1984.

The German influence was the result of a sabbatical Swezey had taken to explore the scene in Berlin, where he befriended the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who ended up headlining that second event. In addition to musicians, a small group of performance artists known collectively as Survival Research Lab also appeared. Aptly named, their act included blowing up refrigerators and shooting objects with a Gatling gun (have I mentioned none of these desert events involved obtaining a permit?).

The recollections by participants are alternately hilarious and harrowing (let’s just say there was some acid involved). My eyes did start to glaze over when the anecdotes became tantamount to getting cornered Monday morning by a co-worker who insists on sharing details of how fucked-up he got at that party Saturday night, but for the most part it’s a fascinating look at a little-known chapter in alternative culture history. The film also connects the dots between these obscure little desert bacchanals and the massive like-minded festivals we have nowadays like Burning Man, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.

The singer not the song: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 14, 2019)

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It always gave me a chuckle that singer-songwriter Barry Manilow did not write his hit “I Write the Songs”, which zipped to #1 in 1976. The song was in fact composed by ex-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote it for David Cassidy. Here’s where it gets interesting.

While Cassidy released it as a single in 1975, it was originally recorded by Captain and Tennille for their 1975 album Love Will Keep Us Together (but never a single). Alas, Cassidy’s version went nowhere fast, despite his pop idol status at the time.

David Cassidy and Captain and Tennille were highly popular acts in the mid-70s. So what gives…why did Manilow’s rendition win out in popularity? Speaking in purely technical terms, is Barry Manilow a “better” singer than David Cassidy or Toni Tennille?

Must be that elusive “x factor”.

There’s a venerable “chicken/egg” conundrum regarding this sort of thing. It goes something like this: What’s more important, the singer, or the song? Given that this is all subjective to begin with…it depends.

For example, the Beatles were not only superb songwriters, but singers as well; I prefer their original versions of their own material. I even love their covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach, etc. Bob Dylan is a superb songwriter, but I’d much rather listen to the Turtles’ hit version of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, since Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman manage to sing it, oh, you know-on key?

Which brings us to one of the most successful singers of the last 50 years, Linda Ronstadt…who didn’t write her own hits either. Reminds me of a funny story. In preface to singing “Desperado” at a 2016 tribute concert to Ronstadt, Don Henley had this to say:

The song I’m about to do for you didn’t get much love or attention when it was released on [The Eagles’] second album in April of 1973. In fact, the executives at the record label freaked out… [feigning shock] “Oh god, they’ve made a fucking cowboy album!” And then Linda Ronstadt recorded the song [knowing laughter from audience] and put it on her album “Don’t Cry Now” that came out in September of 1973…and everything was different after that.

In the case of Linda Ronstadt, sounds like it’s the singer, not the song… n’est-ce pas?

Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of an intimate documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).

Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.

For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.

Name a genre, she’s likely mastered it and moved on: rock, pop, folk, country, country-rock, hard rock, soft-rock, new wave, torch, Latin pop, mariachi, light opera. Not to mention the 10 Grammy Awards, 3 American Music Awards, 2 Academy of Country Music Awards, etc.

What struck me most is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration.

For example, when Ronstadt shares memories of growing up in Arizona singing Mexican canciones with her family, her decision to make an all-Spanish language album in 1987 makes perfect sense (record company execs fretted it was tantamount to career suicide, but when it went on to become the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. music history, I’m guessing they sang…a different tune).

Ronstadt is candid about her “rock chick” image, particularly in context of the music business environs of the 1970s, when it was considered “uncool” among many male musicians to play backup for a female singer. She notes that since she didn’t really have any role models, she had to carve her own way in dealing with “the boys in the band”, as well as the inevitable performance pressures that arise from playing packed arenas night after night, weeks on end. She certainly learned how to hold her own, but it wasn’t easy.

Despite her health condition, there’s no self-pity; Ronstadt comes across as pragmatic, forward-thinking and impressively resilient. There is a moment where the filmmakers gently coax her to appear on camera, while she is visiting with family in Mexico. She sings a traditional Spanish-language song with two of her relatives.

At one point, she stops and asks they start again; she isn’t happy with her harmony (ever the pro). She takes pains to insist what she is doing is “not singing”, because she feels she has lost control of her instrument (not to my ears). They complete the number, and it is beautiful. It’s a bittersweet coda for the film, but I’d wager Linda Ronstadt’s song is far from over.

You will go to the moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2019)

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50 years today, on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’re suffering from tribute fatigue; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. And yes, I’m aware that while we figured out how to put a man on the moon, your cell phone service still sucks; it has been duly noted.

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 fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still some 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. In alphabetical order:

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary (currently in theaters and airing on CNN) 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 impressive. I’ve only seen it on cable, but I could imagine it is spectacular in IMAX. If you missed it, good news-it airs again tonight on CNN at 6pm and 8pm (PST).

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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 still makes for 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 good chemistry as crewmates 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 crucial 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 highly recommend: 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 goddam 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 ambient soundtrack. A mesmerizing and unique 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 a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days…a reason to take pride in being an American.

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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, and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out…the barbershop space rock stylings of Moxy Fruvous.

Blu-ray reissue: The Atomic Cafe (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Atomic Cafe – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

This cautionary 1982 documentary was written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty; a cleverly assembled mélange of footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era. In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (like the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers also draw from military training films. Harrowing, perversely entertaining, and timely as ever… it’s a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of humanity.

Image quality of this 16mm production is excellent (be aware that not all the source archival footage has been restored, per se). Extras include a 2018 interview with the 3 co-directors, plus full-length versions of 11 vintage government propaganda shorts.

The Byrds and the beads: Echo in the Canyon *** & Model Shop (1969) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2019)

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[The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” is] another psychedelic gem written by John, which in this case was literally inspired by psychedelics, because he came up with the idea for the song in the aftermath of an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (and you know that those space cowboys had the good shit, probably Sandoz). At any rate, the story goes that John got freaked out by Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this unsettling mantra stuck with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead…

 – from my 2016 essay on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Revolver

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.).

Interviews with the likes of Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, the late Tom Petty and producer Lou Adler are interspersed with performances from a 2015 tribute concert featuring Jakob Dylan and some of his contemporaries like Cat Power, Beck, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple covering their favorite 60s songs by the artists who are profiled (director Slater helped organize the event). Dylan also conducts the interviews and serves as a tour guide.

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?)

Still, it’s fun to be a fly on the wall as Dylan and his cohorts lay down tracks at vintage L.A. recording studios, or just to watch the late Tom Petty noodle around on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker to demonstrate the rudiments of the 60s California folk-rock sound.

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that (too bad for poor George that the publishers of the Chiffon’s 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” didn’t receive his melodic lift for his 1970 smash “My Sweet Lord” in the same spirit-they promptly sued him for plagiarism).

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

By odd coincidence, the day I previewed the film, a Rolling Stone obit caught my eye: 

Elliot Roberts, who managed the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and many classic-rock legends, died Friday at the age of 76. A cause of death has not been revealed.

“It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm the passing of Elliot Roberts. No further details are available at this time,” a rep for Young wrote in a statement on behalf of Roberts’ Lookout Management.” Roberts, among the most respected and beloved music industry figures of all time, leaves an indelible footprint as a pioneer and leader in the business of artist representation. His uncanny intellect, unmatched, sharp wit, larger-than-life charisma along with his keen understanding of the music industry will remain unparalleled. Truly one of a kind, he will be missed always and by many.”

With his former colleague David Geffen, Roberts was one of the pivotal figures in the rise of the Southern California and Laurel Canyon music scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. Known equally for his business savvy and sense of humor, Roberts landed record deals for Young and Mitchell, co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, conceived the idea of Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Bob Dylan in the 1980s and helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and the Cars. […]

Born Elliot Rabinowitz on February 25th, 1943, Roberts was raised in the Bronx, ran with gangs and, after flirting with the idea of becoming an athlete given his basketball chops, opted for show business. He wound up in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, where he would meet fellow would-be mover and shaker David Geffen.

After he and Geffen rose up the ladder, Roberts heard a tape of Mitchell and soon became her manager, forming Lookout Management. At Mitchell’s urging, Roberts, then only 23, also began managing Young (following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield) and, soon after, Crosby, Stills & Nash. While trying to land the trio a record deal, Roberts realized he needed someone with more record company contacts. Alongside Geffen, he formed the powerful Geffen-Roberts Company. The management firm soon came to represent not just Mitchell (until 1985) but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, America and many others. When Geffen started Asylum Records, its acts, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne, were also managed by Geffen-Roberts.

I believe I just heard an echo of The Bryds singing: “To everything (turn, turn, turn) …”

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Speaking of odd coincidences, there is a scene in Echo in the Canyon where director Andrew Slater mentions that one of the inspirations for his joint tribute concert/documentary project was Jacques Demy’s relatively obscure 1969 drama Model Shop (Slater weaves in snippets of Demy’s film throughout Echo in the Canyon).

Suddenly, a little bell went off in my head (talk about echoes…lots of space in that empty noggin), and I realized that I had a copy of that very film archived in my DVR (it recently aired on TCM). So, I figured-what the hell…sounds like a perfect double-bill.

While I am familiar with Demy’s work (mostly due to having Criterion’s excellent 6-film box set in my collection), Model Shop has somehow eluded me. The film represents a period in the late 60s when Demy and his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda took a hiatus from their native France to explore America’s counterculture scene (speaking of which- Criterion’s 3-film “Agnes Varda in California” box is another great set I recommend).

Like many films of its era, Model Shop is a leisurely, episodic character study. It’s about a restless, late-twenty something Los Angelino named George (Gary Lockwood) who is experiencing possibly both the worst and best day of his life. His morning doesn’t start well; he and his girlfriend are awakened from their slumber by a repo man who is there to seize George’s beloved MG convertible. George manages to beg a 1-day reprieve, based on his promise to make an in-person payment of $100 to his bank by end of business day.

George’s girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) is chagrined over witnessing a scenario she has experienced once too many times. This is obviously not their first fight over money; and it looks like the relationship is just shy of going “kaput”. George is an architect by trade; but has recently quit in a fit of pique (existential crisis?). George flees the escalating spat in his MG as he brainstorms how he’s going to scare up that $100 by 6pm.

George’s day (and the film) turns a 180 when he visits a pal who runs an auto repair shop and espies a lovely woman (Anouk Aimee) who is there to pick up her car. On impulse, he decides to follow her in his MG (yes, it’s a bit on the stalking side). He follows her high up into the hills over L.A., and then seems to lose interest. He stops and takes in a commanding view of the city and the valley beyond, deeply lost in thought.

In my favorite scene, he drives up into (Laurel Canyon?) to visit a friend who’s a musician in an up-and-coming band. George’s pal turns out to be Jay Ferguson, keyboardist and lead singer of the band Spirit (and later, Jo Jo Gunne). Ferguson (playing himself) introduces George to his band mates, who are just wrapping a rehearsal. Sure enough, the boys in the band are Ed Cassidy, Randy California, and Matthew Andes-which is the classic lineup for Spirit! The band also provided the soundtrack for the film.

After the band splits, Jay plays a lovely piano piece for George; a song he’s “working on”. After some small talk, George sheepishly hits Jay up for a loan. No problem, man. Jay’s got him covered. George delivers this short, eloquent soliloquy about Los Angeles:

I was driving down Sunset and I turned on one of those roads that leads into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city; it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place…its harmony. To think that some people claim that it’s an ugly city, when it’s really pure poetry…it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then; create something. It’s a fabulous city.

When George calls his parents to hit them up for money, he gets some dark news from mom. He has just received something he’s been dreading…a draft notice, and he is required to report for processing in just a few days (Vietnam hangs heavily over the film).

By pure chance, he once again spots the woman he had followed earlier. This time, he is determined to meet her. He tails her around Santa Monica, where she eventually disappears into a “models for rent” studio, where clientele pay to take pictures of women in various stages of undress. Undeterred, George pays for a session with the woman he is apparently becoming obsessed with. Their first conversation is as awkward as you would imagine; however, it turns out that George’s interest in her is more heartfelt than prurient.

What ensues is a “one-night-stand” tale that is bittersweet and affecting. The film is a unique entry in Demy’s oeuvre. Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.