Category Archives: Drama

SIFF 2022: Drunken Birds (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

 

SIFF 2022: Juju Stories (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Submitted for your approval…an anthology of three modern urban horror tales steeped in juju lore (directed by Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama, and C.J. Obasi). It’s an uneven collection; the most compelling of the triptych is Obasi’s “Suffer the Witch”. The film is presented by the Surreal 16 Collective, described as “…an initiative that intends to create artistically minded films that move away from the reigning imperialism of Nollywood aesthetics and production practices”.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2022)

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Saint Patrick’s Day is this coming Thursday, so I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations. Sláinte!

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The Commitments –Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some respects, The Commitments is an expansion of Parker’s 1980 film Fame; except here the scenario switches from New York to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m pretty sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (I know Cousins loves that movie, because he gushed over it in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). The lovely cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience  for patient viewers.

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

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb and an adjective.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

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

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Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  Original full review

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

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

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

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

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

Peeking at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 5, 2022)

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It was announced late last month that the Oscar telecast will be even more streamlined than last year’s, and in a manner that has raised a few eyebrows:

Several of the 23 categories that were presented live on the air during last year’s 93rd Oscars telecast will not be presented live on the air during the 94th Oscars telecast on March 27, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

In a move that is already causing tension within the leadership of the Academy, but is likely to be well received by the general public, the presentations and acceptance of eight awards — documentary short, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound — will take place inside the Dolby Theatre an hour before the live telecast commences, will be recorded and will then be edited into the subsequent live broadcast, a variation of a controversial approach that the Academy first adopted and then abandoned in 2018. (The Tony Awards employs a similar model.)

The Academy declined comment.

Hmm. If the intention here is to cater to the (perceived or otherwise) short attention span of a “general public” easily lured from traditional network TV broadcasts by the siren call of social media (or perhaps the myriad digital platforms at their fingertips, chockablock with so much tantalizing, commercial-free, erm, “content”)-then why give the boot to the presentations for all three short film categories?

Be that as it may, the good news is that the 15 nominees (bundled by category) are making the rounds in select theaters; each 5-film collection runs around the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (not every theater is exhibiting all 3 collections; more info about venues and tickets can be found here). Some of the nominees are now streaming; I’ve noted platforms below where applicable.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) The nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Affairs of the Art (UK/Canada; 16 minutes) – Directed by Joanna Quinn and written by Les Mills, this is the latest installment in a series featuring “Beryl”, a 59-year-old factory worker who dreams of becoming “a hyper-futurist artiste”. Beryl works on her art and shares anecdotes about her off-the-wall family. This was my first exposure to the character, and I will say that she is…a free spirit. It’s not 100% comprehensible, but mordantly amusing at times. Not for all tastes. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **½

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Bestia (Chile; 16 minutes) – This stop-motion film by Hugo Covarrubias is a portrait of a female secret police agent, set during a military dictatorship in Chile. Inspired by true events (which I would assume to be a reference to the Pinochet era). Dark and disturbing. (Now streaming on Vimeo)

Rating: ***

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Boxballet (Russia; 15 minutes) – Anton Dyakov’s film is an expressionistic Beauty and the Beast-style tale of a love affair between a ballerina and a boxer. Allusions to Russia’s transition from the Soviet era add political subtext. Imaginative and affecting.

Rating: ***½

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Robin Robin (UK; 31 minutes) – Through no fault of its own, this Pixar-style film (directed by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please) feels out of place, relative to the other 4 program selections (which all have adult themes). A young robin is adopted by a family of mice, and grows up dreaming of becoming a stealthy mouse burglar. Strictly for the kiddies, but it’s charming and tuneful, featuring voice-overs by Richard E. Grant and Gillian Anderson. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Windshield Wiper (Spain; 15 minutes) – Alberto Mielgo’s treatise on the age-old question “What is love?” is a mesmerizing piece quite reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. A man sits in a café, chain-smoking and pondering the mysteries of amour. A series of vignettes ensue; a dream within a dream, all eventually leading back to the dreamer. I’m sorry …what was the question? I’m intrigued to see more from this director. (Streaming via Short of the Week)

Rating: ****

Note: With the exception of Robin Robin, this year’s Animated Program is definitely intended for an adult audience. To be specific, there are depictions of male/female nudity, sex, animal abuse, extreme violence, and ah, bestiality. Moving on…

Nominees for Best Short Film-Documentary:

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Audible (USA; 38 minutes) – This beautifully made film recalls Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, with a depth that takes it well beyond the realm of a standard “sports documentary”. Director Matt Ogens focuses on the lives of a high school football player and his friends, who all attend the Maryland School for the Deaf. A coming-of-age story with surprising twists and turns that will have you both cheering and crying. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ****

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Lead Me Home (USA; 39 minutes) – There are 500,000 Americans without a roof over their head every night, and many more “one paycheck away” from the street. This timely and multifaceted look at homelessness is a sobering metric on the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in America. Co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk profile individuals from the homeless communities of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. What becomes abundantly clear is that you cannot paint “the homeless” with one brush. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Queen of Basketball (USA; 22 minutes) – While I’m not really a sports guy, I suspect I am not the only person who has never heard of Luisa Harris. But director Ben Proudfoot is here to set us straight. When you learn about her jaw-dropping achievements, you’ll become an instant fan; especially once you meet Harris herself…soft-spoken and unassuming, but a true athletic hero in every sense of the word. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: ***½

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Three Songs for Benazir (Afghanistan; 22 minutes) – Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei’s film offers a rare glimpse at life in one of the many displacement camps in Afghanistan (this one in Kabul). The filmmakers focus on a young man named Shaista. Newly married, Shaista is determined to be the first from his tribe to serve in the Afghan National Army (his options for making a living appear to be otherwise severely limited). A surprisingly intimate portrait of hope and resilience in the face of an uncertain future. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***½

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When We Were Bullies (Germany/USA; 36 minutes) – Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt experiences a cosmic coincidence that prompts a trip down memory lane to reexamine a bullying incident that occurred in his 5th grade year at a Brooklyn elementary school. Leans toward the navel-gazing side but holds enough fascination as a Rashomon meets Lord of the Flies rumination on memory, perception, and mob psychology.

Rating: ***

Nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action:

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Ala Kachuu-Take and Run (Switzerland; 38 minutes) – A 19-year-old Kyrgyz woman (Alina Turdumamatova) is on her way to fulfilling her ambition to study in the country’s capital city when she is kidnapped by a group of men who whisk her back to her home village for a forced marriage. When even her mother refuses to intervene on her behalf, she desperately turns to her own wits and determination to find a way out. Maria Brendle’s film is a hard look at a cultural practice in Kyrgyzstan that, despite being declared illegal in 1994, continues unabated in rural areas of that nation.

Rating: ***

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On My Mind (Denmark; 18 minutes) – Martin Strange-Hansen’s affecting “man walks into a bar” story confounds your expectations by such a degree that I shall say no more.

Rating: ****

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Please Hold (USA; 19 minutes) –There are echoes of 1984, Brazil, Robocop, and THX 1138 in KD Davila’s Kafkaesque tale of a hapless Everyman (Erick Lopez) placed under arrest by a police drone. Given no explanation, he is “escorted” to a privatized self-check-in lock-up. Convinced his predicament is due to a bureaucratic error, he frantically navigates to “talk to a human” for legal help. The American justice system as a “customer service” / AI nightmare.

Rating: ***

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The Dress (Poland; 30 minutes) – A character study of a woman in her late 20s (Anna Dzieduszycka) who lives a life of quiet desperation and reliable disappointment. Guarded and prickly around strangers, she fantasizes about having her first sexual experience. When sparks fly between her and a truck driver, her nightly brooding changes to hopeful reverie. An uncompromising examination of ingrained societal attitudes regarding female body image, beautifully acted. Directed by Tadeusz Lysiak.

Rating: ***½

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The Long Goodbye (UK; 12 minutes) – Riz Ahmed stars in this “near future” drama about a South Asian family suddenly propelled into a dystopian horror show while they are in the middle of preparing for a wedding. Visceral and intense, imbued with the noblest intentions of making a statement about the odious resurgence of nativism in the UK, but the piece is so heavy-handed that it ultimately shoots itself in the foot. Especially disappointing that this is from Aniel Karia, whose outstanding feature debut Surge made my top 10 of 2021. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **

 

Freaks and geeks: Nightmare Alley (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2022)

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Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

-from The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman)

“How can a guy get so low?” Even within the dark recesses of film noir, the cynical 1947 genre entry Nightmare Alley is about as “low” as you can get. Directed by Edmund Goulding and adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, the film was a career gamble for star Tyrone Power, who really sunk his teeth into the role of carny-barker-turned “mentalist” Stanton Carlisle.

Utilizing his innate charm and good looks, the ambitious Carlisle ingratiates himself with a veteran carnival mind-reader (Joan Blondell). Once he finagles a few tricks of the trade from her, he woos a hot young sideshow performer (Coleen Gray) and talks her into partnering up to develop their own mentalist act.

The newlyweds find success on the nightclub circuit, but the ever-scheming Carlisle soon sees an opportunity to play a long con with a potentially big payoff. To pull this off, he seeks the assistance of a local shrink (Helen Walker). While not immune to Carlisle’s charms, she is not going to be an easy pushover like the other women in his life. Big trouble ahead…and a race back to the bottom.

The film was considered such a downer that 20th-Century Fox all but buried it following its first run. In addition, legal tangles barred it from being reissued in any home video format until a 2005 DVD release. I was one of those noir geeks who literally jumped for joy when I heard the glorious news. I was even more excited when the Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray in 2021 that featured a sparkling new 4k digital restoration.

It was about the same time as the Criterion reissue last summer that I first heard there was a remake in the wings, scheduled for a December 2021 release.  I found the timing…interesting but shrugged and figured that if the new production had somehow expedited the long-overdue restoration and reissue of Goulding’s original version, then (to re-appropriate Elliott Gould’s catchphrase from Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye) “…it’s okay with me.”

After a relatively brief time in theaters, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley (adapted from Gresham’s novel by the director and Kim Morgan) has pulled up stakes, loaded up the wagons, and (as of February 1st) moved the carnival to HBO Max and Hulu.

Remakes (like carnivals) are a tricky business. You need a barker (or a director, if you will) who is skilled enough to convince the marks that if they depart with their hard-earned cash and buy a ticket, they are about to see something they’ve never seen before.

Therefore, I approach remakes, particularly of classic noirs, with trepidation; I’ve been burned too many times. Not that they can’t work. One example is Farewell, My LovelyDick Richards’ atmospheric 1975 remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). It isn’t “better” than the 1944 adaptation (which starred Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe), but stands on its own because it remains faithful to Chandler’s original milieu, and Marlowe is played by Robert Mitchum, whose own iconography is deeply tethered to the classic noir cycle.

Most often, I’m left thinking “Why ‘fix’ it if it ain’t broke?” As I wrote in my review of Roland Joffe’s 2010 remake of John Boulting’s 1947 noir, Brighton Rock:

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion.

While Riley’s portrayal of Pinkie has a brooding intensity, he lacks a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Alas, I think what we have here with del Toro’s Nightmare Alley…is a Pinkie problem.

I won’t bury the lede (although that may elicit a raised eyebrow if you’ve slogged this far through my windy ramblings). The new Nightmare Alley has a fine cast, led by Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, with support from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, and David Strathairn …but (and this is a big “but”) they are all window-dressed as noir archetypes, and given nothing substantive to do with their characters.

On the plus side, the first hour is an immersive dip into the carny world (but offset by the drag factor of the remaining 90 minutes of the film’s bloated running time). This is attributable to the work of the production designer (Tamara Deverell), art director (Brandt Gordon), set decorator (Shane Vieau) and costume designer (Luis Sequeira).

That said, style without substance can only carry a film so far; once the story moves from Carlisle’s work-study course under the tutelage of veteran “seer” Zeena (the always wonderful Toni Collette, who injects real heart into her character) and her longtime partner-in-bilking Pete (David Strathairn, also a standout), it flat-lines.

Factoring in my own admitted prejudices going in as a cultist devotee of the original, I wouldn’t discourage you from giving the wheel of fortune a spin to see if this iteration of Nightmare Alley lands in your wheelhouse; there is a certain amount of pulpy entertainment value (likely unintended) in Cate Blanchett’s hammy “no more wire hangers”-level turn as the shrink who conspires with Carlisle to fleece a millionaire (Richard Jenkins, also over-cooked here…especially in a “motherfucker”-laced Grand Guignol set-piece that would fit cozily into a Tarantino film).

But if your question is “Left with a choice to watch only one version, which one is the best?”, my crystal ball points to 1947.

Please rewind: 80s Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection (yes, I’ve hung on to a few), put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. Several of my selections remain criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (are you listening, boutique reissue studios?). Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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

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

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark subtexts; yet there is also sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley gives a nuanced performance that belies her age as young Alice, and the late Jim Henson works his magic with the creature creations for the fantasy sequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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Liquid Sky Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (the alien is a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score.

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One Night Stand (VHS only) – An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era.

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

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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

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

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

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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

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

Bolstered by a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft blend of belly-laugh hilarity and bittersweet emotion. Excellent supporting cast, especially Thom Bell, who injects humanity into an otherwise vile character. Sadly, the talented Lloyd never broke big; she went on to do a few relatively unremarkable projects, and then dropped off the radar.

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

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

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Dee: Jane, do you ever feel like you are just this far from being completely hysterical twenty-four hours a day?

Jane: Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty-four hours a day.

— from Grand Canyon, screenplay by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan

HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

— from 2001: A Space Odyssey, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

George Fields: [to Dorothy/Michael] I BEGGED you to get therapy!

— from Tootsie, screenplay by Murray Schisgal

With more of us living la vida shut-in these days , the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 12 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. Take one or two before bedtime; cocktail optional.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsing rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s 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 get complicated, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about. A unique film that fully engages the senses. You may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but it’s the last scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that has been labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never recorded a studio album and stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

An enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and glean a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Diva is an entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) informs Jules. Slick, stylish and cheeky with an engaging international cast.

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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 clever 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 feels 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 (like John snorting the Coke bottle). Music 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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Harold and Maude – Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens.

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Local Hero – This 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, a “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ll ever see.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films that I have become emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Perhaps 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 screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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My Neighbor Totoro  – While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits.

It’s a lovely tale about a young professor and his two daughters settling into their new country house (a “fixer-upper”) while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring and stumbles into the verdant court of a “king” nestled within the roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (an amalgam of every plush toy you ever cuddled with as a child).

Granted, it’s Miyazaki’s most simplistic and kid-friendly tale…but that’s not a put down. Miyazaki’s usual themes remain intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements magical, yet the human characters remain down-to-earth and easy to relate to. A charmer.

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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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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 88 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. Not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, long-form music video, and mockumentary. The 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”.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite films 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…you’d probably say “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 one 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 his chance to pop out of a box and 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-TV 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.

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

Blu-ray reissue: Prince of the City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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Prince of the City (Warner Archive)

Sidney Lumet directed this powerful drama based on the true story of NYC narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.

Warner Archive has a habit of skimping on the extras; this release is no exception, but this is the best-looking print of it I’ve seen since I first caught it in a theater back in 1981.

Blu-ray reissue: The Gambler [1974] (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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The Gambler (Imprint Films; Region ‘B’)

While there have been many films about degenerate gamblers, the twist in Karel Reisz’s 1974 character study is that the protagonist is also a college literature professor with a penchant for discussing the ethical dilemmas faced by Dostoevsky characters (leaving it up to the viewer to determine whether he’s lecturing to his students…or to himself?).

James Caan tackles this complex role with aplomb. Screenwriter (and future director) James Toback was inspired by the eponymous Dostoevsky story, but also drew from his own travails as a gambling addict. Also starring Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino, Morris Carnovsky and Jacqueline Brooks. The supporting cast seems to include every 70s character actor you can think of: Steven Keats, M. Emmet Walsh, Burt Young, Vic Tayback. James Woods, and Stuart Margolin.

Imprint’s Blu-ray transfer is quite obviously not restored (debris and artifacts tell the tale), but image quality, detail and color saturation is still superior to the Paramount DVD released in 2017. Extras include an insightful commentary by author and critic Matthew Asprey Gear, a video essay by Chris O’Neill, an archival interview with Reisz, and more.

Imprint Films is a new outfit out of Australia specializing in reissuing hard-to-find and out-of-print films. Be advised, their discs are region ‘B’ locked; so they require an all-region Blu-ray player (prices on all-region players have dropped considerably in recent years; worth the investment for deep-catalog film buffs). While many of their titles cross over with domestic reissue specialists like Criterion, Shout! Factory and KL Studio Classics, there is always the odd coveted obscurity that falls through the cracks (e.g. …like The Gambler).