Category Archives: Drama

Blu-ray reissue: Mikey and Nicky (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Mikey and Nicky – Criterion Collection

You could call Elaine May’s 1976 mob drama the anti-Godfather. In fact, its verité-style portrayal of two mobbed-up pals in a desperate quandary is so workaday that it even makes suburban dad Tony Soprano look like some stylized hoity-toity version of a “gangster”.

May’s film is “a night in the life” of Nicky (John Cassavetes), a low-rent bookie who has used up all the good graces of some very serious made guys and now fears for his life. Holed up in a cheap hotel room and on the verge of a breakdown, he calls on his pal Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him brainstorm out of his mess. A long dark night of the soul lies ahead.

The loose, improvisational rawness in many scenes may grate on some (especially those unfamiliar with Falk’s previous collaborations with Cassavetes; the pair had by then developed a unique shorthand and that takes some acclimation). Ned Beatty is on hand as an exasperated hit man.

The new 4K scan of the film looks true-to-life (much of it was photographed using available light).

Blu-ray reissue: The Earthling (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Earthling – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

The late William Holden had a distinguished career that began in the late 1930s and ended with his untimely death in 1981 (his final role was in the Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B., released that year). In an interview on TCM last year, his widow (actress Stephanie Powers) stated one of his favorite roles was playing the lead in this small 1980 drama.

Holden plays a terminally ill drifter who returns to his native Australia for the first time in years, to take one final solitary hike to the isolated homestead where he grew up. By chance, he crosses paths with a dazed young boy (Ricky Schroeder) who is wandering around the wilderness after witnessing the death of his parents in a freak accident. At first, he is gruff and indifferent to the boy (almost cruelly so); but necessity sparks a “master and apprentice” relationship between the two as they forge on through the wild. Peter Collinson directed this unique and moving film.

No extras, but Kino’s new 2K mastering nicely accentuates the beautiful scenic locations.

BLu-ray reissue: Bitter Moon (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Bitter Moon – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

This 1992 entry from Roman Polanski seems to have been largely ignored and forgotten, but I think it’s due for serious reappraisal (especially considering the popularity of the comparatively juvenile “50 Shades of Grey” franchise…the parallels will become clear as you read on).

Polanski adapted the screenplay (with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn) from Pascal Bruckner’s novel, which centers on the twisted relationship between a misanthropic paraplegic (Peter Coyote) and his beautiful young wife (Emmanuelle Seigner). The couple’s dark history is recounted in flashbacks as Coyote gleefully shares his increasingly BDSM-leaning tale with a perpetually gob smacked Hugh Grant. Grant plays a young, uptight Englishman who is vacationing on the same cruise ship with his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas). Against his better judgement, Grant finds himself becoming wildly attracted to the flirty Seigner. Are they playing a sick game with him? No spoilers!

I think it’s one of Coyote’s finest performances; even if he does seem cast against type. Dark and disturbing, yet blackly comic (Polanski’s specialty). An intelligently written drama for adults (yes, a rarity). Vangelis did the score. Great transfer, and an entertaining commentary by Troy Howarth.

Trial and error: When They See Us (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2019)

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We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it
You’d have to be a fool to close your eyes and deny it
There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town
Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down

All life from beginning to end
You pay your monthly installments
Next to health is wealth
And only wealth will buy you justice

— Alan Price, “Justice” (from the soundtrack for the film O Lucky Man!)

ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.

YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?

KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?

— From a scene in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us

The wheels of justice sometimes move in mysterious ways. Via NBC earlier this week:

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees Tuesday amid a new wave of backlash over her role in the infamous Central Park Five case.

Fairstein’s role in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five teenagers of color in 1990, after a white woman was attacked in Central Park, has come under new scrutiny after director Ava DuVernay released a Netflix miniseries about the case, “When They See Us.”

The so-called Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were vindicated 13 years after the crime when a serial rapist confessed to the attack.

[Fairstein]…ran the district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time of the case. The Netflix series prompted the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and calls for her prior cases to be re-examined. […]

“The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time,” Bradley said.

Unfortunately for those five young men (ages from 14 to 16 when they were arrested and charged), the extant “social media” platforms throughout the course of their controversial high-profile trials back in 1990 were still relatively old school: phone calls, telegrams, post cards, letters to the editor, graffiti, flyers, rallies, demonstrations, etc.

Those with the biggest bullhorns tended to have the biggest wallets (and the most dubious agendas). For example, if you had $85,000 handy you could place full-page ads in four NYC dailies:

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From the Guardian:

On the evening of 19 April [1989], as 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was white, jogged across the northern, dilapidated section of Central Park, she was attacked – bludgeoned with a rock, gagged, tied and raped. She was left for dead but discovered hours later, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia and severe brain damage.

The New York police department believed they already had the culprits in custody. […]

[The five young men] would all later deny any involvement in criminality that night, but as they were rounded up and interrogated by the police at length, they said, they were forced into confessing to the rape. […]

Four of the boys signed confessions and appeared on video without a lawyer, each arguing that while they had not been the individual to commit the rape, they had witnessed one of the others do it, thereby implicating the entire group. […]

Just two weeks after the Central Park attack, before any of the boys had faced trial and while Meili remained critically ill in a coma, Donald Trump, whose office on Fifth Avenue commanded an exquisite view of the park’s opulent southern frontier, intervened.

He paid a reported $85,000 to take out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. Under the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and above his signature, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But I don’t want to make this about Donald Trump…even if he is an unavoidable part of the story. Fortunately, neither does director/co-writer Ava Duvernay. That said, Duvernay does not avoid him altogether in her 5-hour Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatization of the events. Trump has several “cameos”, in the form of archival TV interview footage (no actor in a bad toupee is required; she wisely lets him hang himself).

In fact Duvernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury forgo focusing on the racist demagoguery and media sensationalism that fueled the rush to judgement in the court of public opinion prior to the trials; opting to explore the deeply personal tribulations of the five accused young men and their families.

The result is a shattering, sobering look at the case and its aftermath; from the inside out, as it were. The story opens the night of the incident; you see how fate and circumstance swept Yusef (Ethan Hiresse and Chris Chalk), Kevin (Assante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Anton (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The quintet’s Kafkaesque nightmare begins once the scene shifts to the police station. They’ve been singled out from 30-odd young males alleged to have been roaming Central Park en masse, harassing bikers, runners, and passers-by at random (only two of the five knew each other prior to that night).

They’re taken into separate interrogation rooms for questioning. Pressured by sex crimes unit D.A. Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to squeeze out confessions ASAP (“Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect” she declares), the detectives proceed to pull out every old dirty trick in the book.

It’s painful to watch the lopsided match of seasoned interrogators exploiting the boys’ fear and confusion in such a cold and calculated manner. Duvernay reveals every iota of the deepening panic and despair on the young actors’ faces by holding them in long, tight closeups. Inevitably, they all break under the pressure of verbal intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

As we follow the boys’ hellish trajectory through the system-interrogation, detention, trials, sentencing and incarceration, you not only get a palpable sense of what each of them was going through, but how their families suffered as well. You also get a sense of a criminal justice system that does not always follow its provisos-like that part regarding “equal justice under the law” (especially when it comes to people of color…needs work).

While the story of the Central Park 5 does have a “happy ending” (bittersweet), Duvernay does not pull any punches regarding that what befell these kids should never, ever have happened in the first place (especially in an allegedly “free society”).

It was a perfect storm of overzealous law enforcement, socioeconomic inequity, systemic racism, and media-fueled public hysteria that put those innocent young men behind bars. I should warn you-watching this miniseries will break your heart and make you mad. As it should.

SIFF 2019: This is Not Berlin (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17 year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

SIFF 2019: Driveways (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is beauty in simplicity. Korean-American director Andrew Ahn and screenwriters Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen have fashioned a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple (and oft-used) setup.

A single Korean-American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her recently deceased sister’s house, ostensibly to clean it out and sell it. To her dismay, she discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it looks like they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with their next-door neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet.

That’s it. I know…sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful; never preachy. Wonderful performances all around, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a particular standout.

SIFF 2019: Storm in My Heart (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Remember when some stoner discovered that if you sync up the Dark Side of the Moon album with The Wizard of Oz…magic happened? This is a similar concept. It’s tough to pigeonhole this “video essay” by obsessive cineaste and film maker Mark Cousins (The Story of Film, The Eyes of Orson Welles). I’d call it more of “an experiment”.

Anyway, his premise: Actresses Susan Hayward and Lena Horne were born on the same day in Brooklyn. Both ended up with storied careers. However, as Horne was African-American and Hayward was white, their trajectories were decidedly different.

Simultaneously running Horne’s 1943 musical Stormy Weather alongside Hayward’s 1953 film With a Song in My Heart, Cousins hopes viewers gain insight regarding racism in Hollywood. I tried, believe me. Aside from a few interestingly synchronous moments, I’m afraid that he did a complete flyover on me.

SIFF 2019: I Am Cuba (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is a tendency to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution as Communist propaganda. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backers, the director was given a surprising amount of creative freedom.

On the surface, Kalatozov’s film is in point of fact a propagandist polemic; the narrative is divided into a quartet of rhetoric-infused vignettes about exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters.

However it is also happens to be a visually intoxicating masterpiece that, despite accolades from critics over the decades, remains relatively obscure. The real stars of the film are the director and his technical crew, who will leave you pondering how they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces and logic-defying tracking shots!

SIFF 2019: An Affair (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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There’s an old Woody Allen joke: “Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, teach gym.” A disenchanted, 40-ish housewife takes a job teaching gym (to the chagrin of hubby). If she was seeking excitement, she gets that and more after one of her students begins stalking her.

In real life, if a high school teacher received a text from a student saying “You look so hot when you run!” followed by a dick pic-she’d put the kibosh on it right then and there-but we’d only have a 10-minute movie. You’ll yell at the protagonist for her inappropriate choices, but if you’re a sucker for steamy erotic thrillers-this film will seduce you (although you’ll still hate yourself in the morning).

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.