Category Archives: Drama

The fierce urgency of now: 10 films for MLK Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2019)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

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

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.         

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Arriba, abajo: Roma (***)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2019)

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (currently available on Netflix) is one of those contemporary arthouse flicks that has “A Compendium of Classic World Cinema” tattooed on its forehead (either that, or “I’ve Seen Too Many Goddamned Movies” is tattooed on mine).

For example, take the title, which recalls Fellini’s Roma (1972), his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years. Cuaron’s film is his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years; although in this case it refers not to Rome, Italy but to the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City where he grew up.

The story centers on a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who is employed as a maid for an upper middle-class family living in politically turbulent Mexico City during the early 1970s. There is another maid in the household named Adela (Nancy Garcia), but Cleo looks to be the de facto nanny, showing a close and loving bond with the 4 children.

The father (Fernando Grediaga) is a physician, who travels frequently due to his work. Or so it seems; when he takes an extended trip to Quebec on “business”, the worst fears of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are confirmed when she learns he’s decided to play house for keeps with his mistress (World Cinema Rule #142…there’s always a mistress).

As Sofia struggles with how she is going to gently break the news to her kids that daddy has split town on them because he is a cheating bastard, the family dynamic is further complicated when Cleo finds herself struggling with how she’s going to gently break the news to her employer that she is with child by her short-term boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who splits town on her faster than you can say “I think I’m pregnant.”

If the narrative is beginning to sound not dissimilar to a tawdry telenovela, you are very perceptive. Cuaron’s cliché-ridden script is not the film’s strongest suit. That said, the man knows how to set up a shot, and his eye is keen (Cuaron pulled cinematography duty here as well). In fact, his B&W photography is stunning enough to forgive a flimsy story.

Where Curaon excels here is in giving the viewer an immersive sense of time and place. There are several memorable set-pieces; most notably a scene wherein the children’s grandmother helps a very pregnant Cleo shop for a crib. That everyday mundanity may not make for riveting cinema, but the situation percolating in the street right in front of the store, which suddenly escalates and engulfs the women in a horrifying manner…does.

I’ll admit being a little late to the party on this film, which has popped up on a surprising number of critics’ “10 best” lists for 2018. I say “surprising” because it has had limited theatrical engagements since late November and has only been streaming on Netflix since December 14th (I stumbled across it quite by accident while scrolling through the network’s maddeningly unsearchable programming menu).

It has also been nominated for 3 Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (as I have already discussed, I have to raise a Belushi eyebrow regarding that screenplay nom).

While many of my fellow critics have swooned mightily under its apparent spell, for me Roma is, alas, a mixed bag. Aparicio has a quietly charismatic screen presence and gives a fine, naturalistic performance as Cleo; although you wish she’d been given a little more to do with her substantial screen time beyond playing the quietly suffering, archetypal Noble Peasant.

Visually, it’s quite a beautiful film. And there is certainly nothing wrong with emulating and evoking the likes of Fellini, Kalatozov, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and other masters of world cinema. It’s just a bit of a disappointment from Curaon, who has given us some outstanding films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity.

Blu-ray reissue: The Magnificent Ambersons ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Magnificent Ambersons – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

It’s sad that the late great Orson Welles has (unfairly) become the perennial poster boy for “squandered talent” in the film industry. Granted, he was a rapscallion who loved to push people’s buttons; unfortunately, some of those “people” were powerful producers and studio heads who didn’t get the joke back in those days when “maverick” and “genius” were dirty words in Hollywood.

But he was a maverick, and he was a genius…he just wanted to make the movies he wanted to make, precisely the way he wanted to make them. But alas, the “boy genius” became enslaved by his own legend soon after making Citizen Kane at age 25.

Welles’ disillusionment with the studio system began with the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, as what hit theaters was essentially a butchered version of how he had envisioned the film. Unfortunately, he had conceded final cut in a deal made with RKO (a decision he came to regret). Adding insult to the injury of the 50 excised minutes from Welles’ original rough cut, studio heads ordered that the negatives of that footage be destroyed as well. Regardless, the film is still heralded as one of Welles’ finest efforts.

Welles adapted the script from Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel. It’s the story of a well-to-do family whose “magnificence” (as Welles’ stentorian voice-over narration informs us) “…began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” This sets the tone for what ensues, which is the rotting of that “splendor” from the inside out; not only the decline of a family dynasty, but of a mannered, measured way of life whose destruction was assured by the onslaught of the Second Industrial Revolution (the price of Progress can be steep).

Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a real showcase for Stanley Cortez’s striking chiaroscuro photography, and a testament to Welles’ mastery of visual storytelling. Extras include two commentary tracks by film scholars and critics, new video essays by film historians and scholars, an excerpt from the 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, written essays, and more.

Blu-ray reissue: Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema – Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

One of my favorite exchanges from Barry Levinson’s infinitely quotable 1981 film Diner occurs between two friends sitting in a theater watching the Ingmar Bergman classic The Seventh Seal:

Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons: Who’s that?

William ‘Billy’ Howard: That’s ‘Death’ walking on the beach.

.Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times. I never saw Death walking on the beach.

Speaking for myself, I saw Death walking on the beach just the other day, in a restored 4K print. It’s one of the 39 films included in Criterion’s exhaustive, bicep-building box set. I have previously seen approximately half of the films in this collection; several I have never even heard of (18 of these titles have never before been released by Criterion).

My plan of attack is to watch the films in chronological order of original release dates. OK, full disclosure: I watched the first two (neither of which I had previously seen, from the late 1940s) but then cheated by skipping ahead to The Seventh Seal (couldn’t wait to see the restored version). So…36 to go (is mid-winter a bad time of year to plow through a box full of Bergman films? Discuss). From what I’ve seen so far, the prints are gorgeous.

Extras. Where to start? There are 5 hours of interviews with Bergman and some key collaborators. There are 2 rare documentary shorts by the director, extensive programs about Bergman’s work, “making of” featurettes, video essays by critics and film scholars, a 248-page hardbound book…everything short of a collectable Death action figure. Discs are mounted in numbered slots on cardboard flip-through “pages” (kind of like an oversized coin collection) and curated as a “film festival”. Of course, you can watch them in any order that you wish (especially at this price). A treasure trove for art house fans!

Blu-ray reissue: Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2018)

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Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood – Criterion Blu-ray (Box Set)

I picked up this box set with trepidation. Previously, I’d only seen two collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and leading lady Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel and Shanghai Express). While I found both quite watchable, they struck me as creaky and melodramatic; it seemed “enough” at the time to get the gist of their creative partnership.

After watching all six films in this Criterion set (and being older and wiser this time around), I “get it” now. Viewing them as a unique film cycle reveals that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; this is Dietrich and Sternberg’s idiosyncratic cinematic universe; a romantic, glamorous, adventurous, exotic world-and you’re just soaking in it. Once you have given yourself over to Dietrich’s mesmerizing allure… plots don’t matter.

The films in the set were all made for Paramount in the early to mid-1930s. Included are: the romantic drama Morocco (1930), spy thriller Dishonored (1931), adventure-romance Shanghai Express (1932), romantic drama Blonde Venus (1932), costume drama The Scarlet Empress (1934), and the comedy-drama-romance The Devil is a Woman (1935).

The films have all been restored and boast new scans (some 2K, others 4K), rendering them as clean and sparkly as they can possibly be for 80+ year-old prints. This visual clarity accentuates Sternberg’s flair for composition and visual language. Extras include documentaries, video essays, archival interviews, and an 80-page book. Buffs will love it.

Where the wild things are: We the Animals (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2018)

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In my 2009 review of Lea Pool’s film Mommy is at the Hairdressers, I wrote:

It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of a carefree childhood, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

I could almost say the same thing about Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals. I say “almost”, because Zagar’s film falls short of “perfect” (more on that shortly). Still, it does succeed in conveying how those “selective” memories of childhood become increasingly ephemeral and abstract as we careen through adult life, slipping ever closer to the abyss.

Adapted by the director and Dan Kitrosser from Justin Torres’ novel, the film is a lyrical slice of life about a working-class Puerto Rican family living in central New York State. The narrative primarily unfolds through a 9-year-old’s point-of-view. His name is Jonah (Evan Rosado). He and older siblings Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isiah Kristian) are de facto latchkey kids, because their young parents (Shelia Vand and Raul Castillo) are often too preoccupied with the drama that generates from their tempestuous marriage.

As a survival mechanism, the brothers have created an idiosyncratic sub-family unit a la Lord of the Flies, with their own set of rules, hierarchy and ritualistic behaviors. Joel and Manny are already displaying signs that they may be inheriting their father’s prideful machismo, whereas Jonah shares his mother’s empathic sensitivity and emotional frailty.

Jonah’s internalized dialog throughout implies he is sharing these sense memories with some benefit of hindsight from an indeterminate point in the future. Oddly, unlike the adult Sean Penn character reassembling bits and pieces of his lost childhood in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (a film that feels like a looming influence, to put it politely), it’s Jonah’s 9-year-old “self” who is doubling here as our omniscient narrator (far out, man).

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with emulating Malick; after all, as Woody Allen retorts in Manhattan after someone derisively tells him he has a God complex, “I gotta model myself after someone.” I’m willing to grade on a curve, especially given this is Zagar’s first narrative feature (his previous films have been documentaries).

On the plus side: Zagar coaxes naturalistic performances from the first-time child actors, Zak Mulligan’s “magic hour” cinematography is striking, and Nick Zammuto’s soundtrack nicely complements (I strongly suspect his favorite album is “Dark Side of the Moon”).

On the down side: there’s nothing wrong with an art film, but this one leans toward being a little too self-consciously arty for its own good. I think Zagar is a talent to keep an eye on; I’m just hoping that his future narrative features will feature a little more…narrative.

Blu-ray reissue: Woodfall-A Revolution in British Cinema [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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In 1958, taking their cues from the Italian neo-realist movement and Cahiers du Cinema crowd, director Tony Richardson, writer John Osborne, and producer Harry Saltzman founded Woodfall Films, an indie production studio that aimed to shake up the staid UK movie industry by creating what would come to be known as the British New Wave. The studio’s oeuvre was initially pigeonholed as “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” films, but there was more diversity in style and content than that labeling would infer, as this 8-film collection demonstrates.

This 9-disc set features 5 films directed by Richardson: Look Back in Anger (1959; ***½), The Entertainer (1960; ***), A Taste of Honey (1961; ****), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962; ****), and Tom Jones (1963; ****). That would make for a fabulous collection in and of itself; but also included are Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; ***½), Desmond Davis’ Girl with Green Eyes (1964; ***), and Richard Lester’s The Knack…and how to get it (1965; **½). This is also a showcase of breakthrough performances from the likes of Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham, and Tom Courtenay.

There are over 20 hours of extras (in which I have made but a small dent so far) spread out over the 8 films plus a 9th disc dedicated solely to bonus material. In addition to new and archival interviews with filmmakers and actors, there is a treasure trove of rare shorts by Richardson, Reisz and others, plus an 80-page booklet with essays on all 8 films.

Picture and sound quality are excellent (many of the films are newly restored; Tom Jones looks particularly gorgeous) with one caveat: for whatever reasons, The Knack…and how to get it is glaringly unrestored. The transfer of the film is decent enough, but the print is a little rough in patches and the audio somewhat muffled (thankfully there is a subtitle option). It’s a minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar package. A film buff’s delight!

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

SIFF 2018: The Crime of Monsieur Lange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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With its central themes regarding exploited workers and the opportunistic, predatory habits of men in power, this rarely-presented and newly restored 1936 film by the great Jean Renoir (La Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) plays like a prescient social justice revenge fantasy custom-tailored for our times. A struggling pulp western writer who works for a scuzzy, exploitative Harvey Weinstein-like publisher takes on his corrupt boss by forming a worker’s collective. While it is essentially a sociopolitical noir, the numerous romantic subplots, snappy pre-Code patter, busy multi-character shots and the restless camera presages His Girl Friday.

SIFF 2018: The Drummer and the Keeper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Irish singer-songwriter Nick Kelly’s debut feature is a touching drama about an “odd-couple” friendship that develops between a troubled young drummer with bi-polar disorder and another young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. While it initially borrows liberally from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Rainman, the film eventually establishes its own unique voice, and thankfully avoids the cloying sentimentality of, say, I Am Sam. An infusion of that dark, dry Irish humor helps as well.