Category Archives: Drama

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2020)

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In celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, here are 10 worthwhile films to check out:

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Arctic Son — I first saw this straightforward documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 documentary Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.

Stanley, Jr. has grown up in Washington State. Raised by his single mom, he has grown up to be more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse issues, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a more traditional subsistence lifestyle in the boonies of the Yukon Territories. The initially wary and sullen young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking and uncompromising look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

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Dead Man — Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering.

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with a semi-mystical Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic ethos. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

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The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the general uproar and unsavory behavioral changes that the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful and happy little community, Xi decides to trek to “the edge of the world” so he can give the troublesome object back to the gods that made it. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in a sweet and endearing manner.

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies. A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

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Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity,

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Powwow Highway — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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This May Be the Last Time — Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey.

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Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David  Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can. Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.

Cinema Therapy: The sequel

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2020)

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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 Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal

Man…2020 has been one long, strange century.

As Howard Beale once said, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad.”  Four score and seven years ago (back in March), when portions of America went into a pandemic-driven lock down and our nation turned its lonely eyes to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms in a desperate search for binge-worthy distraction, I published a post sharing 10 of my favorite “therapy movies”.

Now its October (where have the decades gone?) and things are…unsettled. The news cycle of this past week has been particularly trying for those of us who follow that sort of thing (which I assume to be “most of us” who gravitate to this corner of the blogosphere).

With that in mind, here are 10 more 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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Amelie (Amazon Prime, Hulu) – Yes, I know this one has its share of detractors-but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film has stolen my heart for life.

Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously like her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You will have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts.

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Casablanca (Amazon Prime) – For me, Michael Curtiz’s 1942 treatise on love, war and character is a textbook “movie movie” …cinematic comfort food, if you will. In other words, I don’t require it to make sense on every level. Whether it’s 100% believable as a World War II adventure, or whether the characters are cardboard archetypes, or whether it looks like it was filmed on a sound stage …all moot issues in a true “movie movie”.

What does matter to me about this film is the romance, intrigue, selfless sacrifice, Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” ever, that goodbye at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about it?

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The Dish (Amazon Prime) – This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia 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 Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I would recommend: The Castle (1997).

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Harold and Maude (Amazon Prime) – 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 they 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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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (DVD only) – Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a fascinating and colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc. and the performances are outstanding.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day. If you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching, and Stern obliges. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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My Neighbor Totoro (Amazon Prime) – 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 (a furry, whiskered amalgam of every cuddly toy you ever cozied up to 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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North By Northwest (Amazon Prime) – I’m hard-pressed to find a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual mastery than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated by countless Hitchcock wannabes).

Although I never tire of the crop-dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging Mt. Rushmore set piece, my favorite part is the dining car scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Bernard Hermann’s score is one of his finest.

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Pow Wow Highway (DVD only) – A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha.

Philbert decides that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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The Man Who Would Be King (Amazon Prime) – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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The Ritz (Amazon Prime) – I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to scream their lines?)-but I make exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who seeks asylum in what he assumes will be the last place that the hit men would think of to look for him-a bath house. And yes, campy hilarity ensues.

The cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with an “interesting” voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately upstaged by Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to not be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing matter through my nose.

Please rewind: 10 Eighties Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2020)

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection, put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. No reason for it, although the possibility exists that 7 months into the pandemic hunker-down, I am running low on novel “theme night” ideas. Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Comfort and Joy – This quirky1984 trifle is from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into an existential crisis. Soon after lamenting to his skeptical GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The movie is chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are quite authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: it might take days to get that ice cream van’s amplified tape loop out of your head (“Cheerio, folks!”).

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind the creation of 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 (a wonderful 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 has been invited to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm, excellent as always), which leads to an unexpected and bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark and uncomfortable themes at work here; that said, there is also much sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley delivers a nuanced performance of a quality well beyond her chronological age as the young Alice, and the late great Jim Henson works his special magic with the creature creations for the inspired fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers – In this 1984 drama, director-writer Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about two 30-something pals who are both going through big transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as a petulant man-child named Blue, a starving artist who specializes in quasi-pornographic, 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 recently dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad that boasts a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also feeling 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 sorely tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a sharply observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on TV’s Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

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Light of Day – 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 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 also the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated but the Boss wisely decided to keep that little number for himself).

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Liquid Sky – A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have 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 (I suppose that makes the alien 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 for his 1982 curio. Deeply weird, yet eminently watchable (I’ve seen it more times than I’m willing to confess in mixed company).

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid – I think that the thing I adore most about this criminally underappreciated 1987 dramedy from British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts fear and despise the most: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly. In other words, 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. Wonderful performances abound (including the great Claire Bloom, and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift), buoyed by Frears’ fine 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 Brit-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop – 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 later helmed the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 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.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from Thom Bell, who skillfully manages to find the sympathetic humanity in an otherwise vile character. It’s unfortunate that Lloyd never broke big, going on to appear in only a few unremarkable projects and then dropping 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”.

An inspector calls: Guest of Honour (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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In my 2015 review of Caryn Waechter’s drama The Sisterhood of Night, I wrote:

Jeez…adolescence was traumatic enough before the internet and advent of cyber-bullying (yes, I’m that old). Unfortunately (and perversely), it’s become much easier for the perpetrators and that much tougher on the victims. Your tormentors no longer have to hang out after school, bundled up for inclement weather, waiting for you to finish with chess club so they can stomp on your glasses (or worse). Now, they can chill out in the comfort of their parent’s basement, cloaked in anonymity, as they harass, denigrate, flame, impersonate, or stalk ‘til the cows come home (with virtual impunity).

As ephemeral as one’s “reputation” is to begin with, we live in an era where “it” hangs by the slenderest thread: a mere keystroke or the press of a “send” button can annihilate it. What is a “reputation” anyway? (If you say it’s an album by Taylor Swift…to the moon).

Well, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster:

rep·​u·​ta·​tion | \ ˌre-pyə-ˈtā-shən

Definition of reputation

1a: overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general

b: recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability // has the reputation of being clever

2: a place in public esteem or regard: good name // trying to protect his reputation

If I read that correctly, a “reputation” is at once objective and subjective; as “esteem”, “regard” and “character” is largely determined as “seen or judged by people in general”. “Reputation” is a key theme of the latest film from esteemed (ahem) Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey).

Guest of Honour focuses on the mercurial relationship between a father (David Thewlis) and his daughter (Laysla De Oliveira). The story of their relationship unfolds in classic Egoyan fashion, which is to say that it unravels slowly and deliberately in a non-linear construct.

As the film opens, Jim (dad) has died. His daughter Veronica meets with the priest (Luke Wilson) who will be conducting the service. As Jim was never an active member of his congregation, the priest gently presses Veronica for a glimpse into his life and character. Of course, this venerable setup (as old as Citizen Kane) telegraphs “Flashbacks Ahead!”

Turns out dad was nothing, if not quirky. A failed restaurateur-turned-health inspector (yes-that’s too perfect), Jim, who lost his wife to cancer when Veronica was a young girl, is a brooding widower who spends his spare time lovingly caring for his…pet rabbit (you could say that “rabbit’s foot” is this film’s “Rosebud”).

Back to reputation. In reviewing her father’s life, Veronica is also telling her own story to the priest (or is it a confession?). We learn she is a high school music teacher; or rather, she used to be until something happened. Or did it happen? At any rate, her reputation suffered (I am avoiding spoilers).

Whether this “something” happened or didn’t happen, Veronica, for reasons known only to herself (and to be revealed by film’s end) takes full responsibility, citing that she abused her position of power as a teacher (again…which she may or may not have done).

In case we can’t connect the dots, Jim, acting as a concerned father, seizes an opportunity to use his position of power (i.e. the “power” vested in him as a health inspector to affect the reputation of a restaurant) to restore Veronica’s reputation.

If this is beginning to sound contrived and heavy-handed…It pains me to report it is.

I found the first half intriguing, but after hard-to-buy reveals and a silly penultimate scene (possibly inspired by Francis Veber’s 1998 social satire Le Diner de Cons) I stopped caring about the characters (fatal in a character study). To be fair, viewers less familiar with the director’s oeuvre may be more forgiving; my expectations were high.

It pains me because Egoyan is a filmmaker I have a great deal of respect for. For most of the 90s, few directors could touch him when it came to emotionally shattering, deeply affecting dramas about the secrets we keep and the lies we tell (to ourselves, as well as to those we love) – all were intelligently written, sensitively directed, and beautifully acted.

When it comes to brooding, David Thewlis is unsurpassed. Despite the shortcomings of the film, this is his most compelling turn since his 1993 breakout role in Mike Leigh’s Naked. That said (through no fault of his) Thewlis’ inscrutable, officious, and fastidious character feels anachronistic; less believable in 21st Century Canada and more at home in one of the anti-totalitarian films made behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and 70s (Jim would be The Petty Bureaucrat).

Alas, Thewlis is the best thing about Guest of Honour. Still, I look forward to Egoyan’s next project. After all, the man has a reputation to uphold.

Primal doubts and all: Tommaso (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2020)

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The artist is the medium between his fantasies and the rest of the world.

 — Federico Fellini

There are few tougher sells to moviegoers than a film that simmers in the navel-gazing angst of a creatively blocked filmmaker. Yet it has become a venerable sub-genre you can trace at least as far back as Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea plays a director of populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road masquerading as a penniless railroad tramp. His crash-course in “social realism” becomes more than he bargained for. What did he expect? I mean, talk about “bitching in Paradise”…am I right?

As I noted in my 2013 review of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (aka The Great Beauty), a drama regarding an acclaimed novelist who is weathering an existential crisis:

Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.

While The Great Beauty is not about a film maker, it is nonetheless a direct descendant of Federico Fellini’s . Fellini’s 1963 drama about a creatively blocked director stewing over his next project offered a groundbreaking take on the “blocked artist” trope. With a non-linear narrative and flights of fantasy, it injected the “metaphysical” into the “meta”.

It was outrageously over-the-top and completely self-indulgent (especially for 1963), but Fellini’s film managed to strike a chord with audiences and critics. That is not an easy trick to pull off. In a 2000 retrospective on the film, Roger Ebert offered this explanation:

Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.

It also was (and remains) a hugely influential work. Films like Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) are a few of the more notable works with strong echoes of 8½.

Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso [now playing nationally in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee] is the latest descendant of ; although it offers a less fanciful and decidedly more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is certainly no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is (to say the least) a troubled, troubled man.

Tommaso is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and 3 year-old daughter Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara). At first glance, Tommaso leads an idyllic life; he has ingratiated himself by taking Italian lessons from a private tutor and appears to be a fixture in his neighborhood, cheerfully going about his daily errands with the unhurried countenance of a native local.

However, as we are given more time to observe Tommaso’s home life, there is increasing evidence of trouble in Paradise. Aside from the classic schisms that tend to occur in May-December relationships, Tommaso and Nikki obviously struggle with some cultural differences. Tommaso is also on edge because he is working on a storyboard for his next film (with elements that recall The Revenant) but can’t decide what he wants it to “say”.

The angst really kicks in when Tommaso attends an AA meeting. And then another, and another. While these scenes (i.e. monologues) are somewhat static and are potential deal-breakers for some viewers, they are key in communicating Tommaso’s inner turmoil.

Of course, the question becomes…do you care? Is this all just more of that “Pottery Barn angst” that I mentioned earlier? Dude…you have a beautiful young wife and an adorable little girl, you’re slumming in Rome, you’re an artist who makes his own schedule…and all you do is whinge and moan about how your life sucks, meow-meow woof-woof. Oh, please!

On the other hand, keep in mind this is an Abel Ferrara film. Historically, Ferrara does not churn out “light” fare. If you have seen China Girl, Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Addiction, The Funeral, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, et.al.-you know he is a visceral and uncompromising filmmaker. What I’m suggesting is, don’t give up on this too early; stay with it, give it some time to stew (I confess- it took me two viewings to “get there”).

The main impetus for sticking with the film (which ultimately shares more commonalities with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life than with ) is to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material.

Don’t Pray on Me: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2020)

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In my 2008 review of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I wrote:

Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.

Gabita is pregnant and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children.  He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married. […]

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not exactly be a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.

The journey undertaken by the two young women is harrowing. But that film was set in 1980s Romania, under an oppressive dictatorship. Surely, a young woman in 2020 America who finds herself in Gabita’s predicament wouldn’t face those challenges, right? I mean, come on. “…a cautionary tale”?! Perhaps I was being a tad hyperbolic. Or was I?

[From an April 13, 2020 AP story]

The coronavirus outbreak has fueled attempts to ban abortions in some states, but providers where the procedure remains available report increased demand, often from women distraught over economic stress and health concerns linked to the pandemic.

“The calls we’ve been getting are frantic,” said Julie Burkhart, who manages clinics in Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City. “We’ve seen more women coming sooner than they would have because they’re scared they won’t be able to access the services later.”

Some clinics are seeing patients who traveled hundreds of miles from states such as Texas, which has banned abortions during much of the pandemic on grounds they are nonessential.

Dr. Allison Cowett of Family Planning Associates in Chicago said one recent patient was a teen who drove from Texas with her mother. In Atlanta, Dr. Marissa Lapedis said her clinic accommodated a woman who received her initial abortion consultation in Texas but flew to Georgia when the Texas ban postponed a second visit to receive the abortion pill. […]

Another concern is that abortion bans will force some women into continuing with high-risk pregnancies.

“Without services, very sick babies will be born and families forced to watch them suffer who would, in other times, have made a different decision,” said Dr. Maryl Sackeim, a Chicago-based OB-GYN. […]

Amid debate about whether abortion is an essential service, anti-abortion protesters have mobilized outside numerous clinics — in some cases triggering confrontations with police over whether they’re violating social-distancing rules. In North Carolina, eight of about 50 protesters were arrested April 4 after refusing to disperse outside a clinic in Charlotte.

Even as many businesses close temporarily, anti-abortion pregnancy centers remain open. Virginia-based Care Net, which oversees about 1,100 centers, evoked the pandemic in a fundraising appeal, noting that unplanned pregnancies may rise during isolation and “our centers need to find creative ways to serve these parents and empower them to choose life.”

While it was not her master plan, the timing for the release of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (which premiered this week on V.O.D.) could not have been more apt. Hittman’s indie drama was originally slated for a theatrical opening in March, but was thwarted by its proximity to quarantine closures.

Like the protagonist in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; in this case it is her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder).

They both work part-time as grocery clerks in a rural Pennsylvania burg. While Skylar is friendly and engaging, Autumn is sullen and introspective. In fact, our first glimpse of Autumn finds her singing an emo folk-style cover of an early 60s girl group tune at a school talent show (if you pay close attention, the lyrics will take on deeper significance as the film unfolds). Her performance is interrupted by a slut-shaming catcall from a yahoo in the audience. Undaunted, she picks up where she left off and finishes to a smattering of polite applause.

There appears to be a dearth of support at home too; her stepfather (who looks and acts like one of those belligerents who gets wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in any given episode of Cops) has to be brow-beaten by his wife into paying Autumn a compliment for her performance. Although it is never directly addressed, there is also an unsettling tension between Autumn and her stepfather that implies there could be some history of abuse.

Soon after, Autumn visits her local “crisis pregnancy center” to confirm what she suspects. The woman helping her is pleasant enough but obviously not a licensed medical professional. Autumn is handed an over-the-counter test kit and asked to self-administer. She is told that she is likely at 10 weeks. When Autumn fails to sing hallelujah and break into a happy dance, the woman makes a sort of duck face and nonchalantly asks her if she “has a minute” to watch something. Cue one of those horror show-styled Pro-Life videos.

Two things become clear. Firstly, Autumn does not wish to go full term (in a difficult-to-watch scene, she does a Google search on self-induced abortion and attempts a few methods that come to naught). And since she lives in a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided, she needs to quickly brainstorm a much safer way to take care of her situation while keeping it on the down-low from her parents.

Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds (seeded by an impulsive re-appropriation by Skylar while doing her end-of-shift cash drawer balance at the supermarket), surreptitiously pack overnight bags and head for the bus station. Destination: NYC (I half-expected them to sit across the aisle from Joe Buck, to the strains of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking”).

Along the way, they get chatted up by a gabby oddball named Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, who you may recognize from Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida). Autumn does not engage, but Skylar ends up giving him her cell number (probably just to shut him up) and giving him a politely non-committal answer to his offer to take them clubbing once they hit the city (dweeby Jasper is the only sympathetic male character in the film).

The Midnight Cowboy vibe kicks in again as soon as Autumn and Skylar disembark at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are not in Kansas anymore (well, technically rural Pennsylvania). Autumn does find her way to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she is chagrined to learn that she is in fact in her second trimester (at 18 weeks, instead of 10 weeks as she was led to believe by the woman at her hometown pregnancy crisis center).

She is assured that if she still wishes to follow through with the abortion, they can facilitate. However, due to her status it requires a two-day outpatient procedure for maximum safety. As Autumn and Skylar did not budget for an overnight stay in prohibitively expensive Manhattan, the remainder of the film becomes an episodic ride-along as the pair find various creative ways to kill time between Autumn’s two medical procedures.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Flanigan especially shines in the film’s pivotal and most emotionally wrenching scene, which takes place at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. Autumn is asked a series of questions by one of the staff that are designed to determine the client’s current state of mind, and to find out if she is living in an unsafe situation (e.g., sexual and/or domestic abuse). Autumn is assured there are no right or wrong answers; only “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.”

Interestingly, the character of Autumn reminded me of the eponymous protagonist in writer-director Barbra Loden’s groundbreaking 1970 character study/road movie Wanda (I suspect the film was an influence on Hittman). While Autumn is a 17 year-old high school student and Wanda a 30-something housewife, both characters have a strange, Sphinx-like passivity. Both women live in dreary, conservative working-class towns in rural Pennsylvania. Both are treated like shit by most of the males they encounter, yet are able to remain impervious and even above it all; as if they exist on their own transcendent astral plane. Their inscrutability could be read as a sort of feminist statement…albeit from an odd, counter-intuitive place. Just a thought.

This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be. It is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.

Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. And despite what portions of my review may have led you to think, she does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate.

Or does she? Perhaps the film is a Rorschach test; it is your decision to make. As it should be.

Five O’clock World: Working Man (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 2, 2020)

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“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.”

― Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

We live in interesting times. This past May Day marked a particularly “interesting” confluence of traditional historical commemoration with a cold and harsh “new reality”.

[from The Intercept]

An unprecedented coalition of workers from some of America’s largest companies will strike on [May 1]. Workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx are slated to walk out on work, citing what they say is their employers’ record profits at the expense of workers’ health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The employees will call out sick or walk off the job during their lunch break, according to a press release set to be published by organizers on Wednesday. In some locations, rank-and-file union members will join workers outside their warehouses and storefronts to support the demonstrations.

“We are acting in conjunction with workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart and other companies for International Worker’s Day to show solidarity with other essential workers in our struggle for better protections and benefits in the pandemic,” said Daniel Steinbrook, a Whole Foods employee and strike organizer. […]

“These workers have been exploited so shamelessly for so long by these companies while performing incredibly important but largely invisible labor,” said Stephen Brier, a labor historian and professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “All of a sudden, they’re deemed essential workers in a pandemic, giving them tremendous leverage and power if they organize collectively.”

And these are the folks who are “lucky” enough to still have a job during this unprecedented (albeit necessary) national lock-down. There are tens of millions of Americans who have been laid off or furloughed over the past 2 months currently wondering where they are going find the money to pay their rent, much less buy necessities and cover all their monthly bills.

“Insecurity cuts deeper and extends more widely than bare unemployment. Fear of loss of work, dread of the oncoming of old age, create anxiety and eat into self-respect in a way that impairs personal dignity.”

― John Dewey

Even during “normal” times, losing a job can be traumatic; especially for career employees in traditional blue-collar manufacturing jobs who get blindsided by unexpected factory shutdowns. Such is the lot of the Every Man protagonist in writer-director Robert Jury’s drama, Working Man (available on VOD beginning May 5).

His name is Allery Parkes (Peter Gerety, who you may recognize from HBO’s The Wire, as well as his more recent roles in Showtime’s Ray Donovan and City on a Hill). Allery has been working at the same factory most of his adult life, living quietly with his devoted wife Iola (Talia Shire) in a small (unidentified) rust belt town (maybe in Illinois).

As the film opens, Allery wearily un-crumples himself from his bed in the manner that weary elderly folks do. He goes through his morning ablutions, slaps together a Braunschweiger sandwich on white bread (no condiments), nods goodbye to his wife and dutifully sets off on his morning walk to work, armed with his thermos and his lunch pail.

Not unlike Allery himself, who not so much walks as waddles due to his time-worn hips, this is a town obviously on its last legs. Abandoned buildings abound, many adorned with “for lease by owner” signs. Allery works at a factory that manufactures plastic…widgets?

Whatever Allery and his co-workers are manufacturing, they will not be doing so much longer…the factory is closing, and this is to be their last shift. In fact, they are instructed to knock off early, line up for final paychecks, then sent off on their (not so) merry way. However, Allery is determined to finish out his full shift, to the chagrin of his supervisor-who nonetheless understands the gesture and lets Allery exit the stage with dignity intact.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that while the factory has shut down, Allery is not ready to rest on his laurels. One day (to the puzzlement and concern of his wife and neighbors) Allery sets off as he has for decades, thermos and lunch pail in hand.

What’s he up to? As this was the last operating factory in town…where is Allery headed?

For that matter, with 90 minutes more to fill-where is this story headed? I’m not telling.

The film meanders at times, but not fatally. There are shades of Gung Ho and The Full Monty (without dancing). Still, Jury’s film holds its own, thanks to strong and believable performances from Gerety, Shire and Billy Brown, and is nicely shot by DP Piero Basso.

The film’s uncanny timeliness gives it an additional shot in the arm. And for those who may currently find themselves in a situation like Allery’s, the film itself may deliver a shot in the arm that they could use right about now; perhaps a glimmer of hope that all is not lost, that this too shall soon pass …or at the very least, an affirmation of the dignity of work.

I’m Not There: Notes from Tribeca 2020

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Like other film festivals that have had to cancel their “real world” event due to the pandemic, Tribeca is keeping the spirit and mission of their programming alive by devising inventive “virtual” solutions for carrying on. They are offering quarantined film fans access to select programming curated for online viewing through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca has also provided accredited press access to some of this year’s festival selections. I’m happy to report I was granted access, so I’m sharing some festival highlights with you…even though I’m not really “there” (and frankly I haven’t been “all there” for years anyway…but longtime readers already know that). Hopefully, these films will be coming soon to a theater (or streaming platform) near you!

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Ainu Mosir (***) – This drama from writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga offers a rare glimpse into Japan’s Ainu culture (historically marginalized, the Ainu people were not officially acknowledged as “indigenous” by that country’s government until it passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution in 2008 that also urged an end to discrimination against the group).

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives with his mother in an Ainu village with a tourist-based economy. Kanto’s mother encourages him to take counsel from a long-time friend of his late father who strongly believes in passing on the cultural traditions of the Ainu to its young people. When the family friend invites the teen to join him in clandestine preparations for a sacrificial ceremony certain to stir up discord within the community, Kanto must navigate a way to embrace his heritage and honor his father’s memory while reconciling with modern mores. Sensitively directed and acted.

Related reviews: Birds of Passage, Angry Inuk, Tibet in Song

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Banksy Most Wanted (**½)– Almost everybody knows what internationally celebrated guerilla street artist Banksy does, but despite years of investigative journalism, amateur-to-professional sleuthing and “outings”…nobody but he/she/themselves knows who the real McCoy(s) is/are. Co-directors Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley give it a whirl in their slickly made but ultimately frustrating documentary. Promising leads are followed, but no Big Reveals. The best parts of this globe-trotting quest are the glimpses at Banksy’s brilliant work, which continues to defy logic as to how he/she/they manage to pull it off while cunningly remaining hidden in plain sight. To be fair, the directors had a tough act to follow: Banksy’s own meta-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).

Related reviews: Art and Craft, My Kid Could Paint That

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Call Your Mother (**½)– Why are some people inherently “funny”? Funny, as in-other people will pay to watch them crack wise in front of a brick wall? Where does a “sense of humor” come from…nature or nurture? In this breezy (if lightweight) documentary, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady suggest it is …your mom. And they mean that in a nice way-as demonstrated by comics Louie Anderson, Tig Notaro, Kristen Schaal, Bobby Lee, Judy Gold, David Spade, Rachel Feinstein, et.al. who share anecdotes about (in some cases, camera time with) their moms. Initially fun and even endearing, but ultimately eschews any real insight for seeking 50 ways to say “My mom is such a card!”

Related reviews: When Comedy Went to School, Can We Take a Joke?

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Love Spreads (***½) – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.

“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto. Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs (in the power-pop vein).

Related reviews: Love and Mercy, The Runaways, Tokyo Pop, God Help the Girl, We Are the Best, The Gits, Top 11 Rock Musicals

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Pacified (***½) – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil provide a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama. Sort of a cross between The King of New York and City of God, the story takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The narrative centers on the relationship between 13-year old Tati (Cassia Gil), her single (and drug-addicted) mother Andrea (Débora Nascimento), and Jaca (Bukassa Kabengele), the former “godfather” of the neighborhood who has just been released from prison. Jaca, who has mellowed while in the joint, is nonetheless chagrined to learn that the young protégé he left in charge has essentially declared himself boss, become a neighborhood terror and now views Jaca as a threat to his regime. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians.

Related reviews: The Edge of Democracy

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P.S. Burn This Letter Please (***) – Can we dish? I admit that going into this documentary, what I knew about the history of the 50’s drag scene in New York City wouldn’t have filled a flea’s codpiece. But some 100-odd minutes and several fabulously accessorized costume changes later…my codpiece was full. That did not come out sounding right. Suffice it to say Michael Seilgman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s Ken Burns-style documentary is an eye-opener. Inspired by a box of letters found in an abandoned storage unit, the film is an intimate history of a unique art form that managed to persevere and thrive during an era not too long ago when the LGBTQ community was relentlessly persecuted and forced to live in the shadows.

Related reviews: Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Stonewall Uprising

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (***) – This glossy portrait of Ronnie Wood from Eagle Rock Films looks back on the venerable British rocker’s career and catches up with his current life and interests. Viable and animated as ever, the seemingly indestructible Wood sits down with director Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday, The Browning Version, Leaving Las Vegas) and chats about everything from his 45 years with the Stones, early days with his first band The Birds, his creative association with Rod Stewart (in both the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces) to his “second career” as an artist and his longtime struggle with drugs and drink.

The amiable Wood is quite the raconteur and comes off as a fun bloke to hang out with. I would have loved more footage of the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces, but that is a personal problem. Also, on hand: Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Wood’s wife Sally. This film is catnip for classic rock aficionados.

Related reviews: Too Rolling Stoned: A Top 5 List, Muscle Shoals, David Crosby: Remember My Name, Gimme Danger

For more info check out the Tribeca Film Festival website.

The Virtual International Film Festival: Week 2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

I’ve covered the Seattle International Film Festival for Hullabaloo since 2006. Over that 14 year period I’ve reviewed over 200 SIFF films. So I thought I’d comb my archives and curate a “Best of SIFF” festival that doesn’t require leaving the safety of your abode.

So welcome to Week 2 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Bad Black (Amazon Prime Video, tubi) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Full review)

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Becoming Who I Was (Amazon Prime Video) – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Full review)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Amazon Prime Video) – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Full review)

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Endless Poetry (Amazon Prime Video) – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?”, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope.

Endless Poetry, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself. (Full review)

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Home Care (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes) – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak.

An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) are an endearing screen couple. The stories we’ve been hearing about the selflessness of health care workers who are on the front lines of the current Covid-19 pandemic adds a new level of poignancy to Horak’s film. (Full review)

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Mekko (Amazon Prime Video) – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world. (Full review)

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Polisse (YouTube, iTunes) – A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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The Rocket (Amazon Prime Video) – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a remarkable performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (iTunes) – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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This May Be the Last Time (Amazon Prime Video) –Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

This is two films in one; both family memoir and academic study. Harjo investigates a story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inspires the second layer of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, Harjo traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey. (Full review)

…one more thing

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Good news-You can catch first-run indie films from home… via SIFF’s virtual cinema:

Due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding COVID-19, our Cinemas are temporarily closed and the 46th annual Seattle International Film Festival has been canceled. SIFF will be on hiatus for the next few months while a small team takes care of SIFF’s assets and plans for the eventual reopening of SIFF.

In the meantime, we’re pleased to be working with distributors to bring you virtual screenings of new independent films. Stay home, stay healthy, and support SIFF with Virtual SIFF Cinema!

On each film detail page, you’ll find a link to the distributor’s screening portal where you’ll be able to rent the film and begin watching. As part of the revenue goes directly back to SIFF, this is a great way to support us during this time and see new films!

…and this just in!

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Another cancelled 2020 film festival that has devised “virtual” solutions for carrying on is Tribeca. While the physical event has been scrapped (for obvious reasons), the organizers are keeping the spirit and mission of the annual event alive by offering film fans worldwide access to select programming specially curated for online viewing, from April 17 through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

Want to dive in now? A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away is a fun place to start!

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca is also providing accredited press access to some of this year’s selections (features and shorts). I’m happy to report I have been granted access, so starting next Saturday, I’ll be sharing some reviews of new films to keep an eye out for in the near future. In the meantime, check out the Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.

Virtual International Film Festival: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2020)

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and film festivals are right out.

Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

No worries. I’ve been covering the annual Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the 14 years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. So I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a sort of Best of the Festival Festival (since the acronym for that is BOFF-for the sake of decorum, I felt I ought not to use it as a header).

So welcome to Week 1 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Another Earth (Amazon Prime Video) – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son (YouTube, iTunes) – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly (Amazon Prime Video) – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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Mid-August Lunch (Amazon Prime Video) – This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare (iTunes) – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. (Full review)

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Nowhere Boy (Netflix, iTunes, Showtime) – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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Queen of the Sun (Amazon Prime Video) – I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us. (Full review)

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Telstar (YouTube, iTunes) – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time).

The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Full review)

…one more thing

In case you are still bereft of ideas for movie night, film programmer and writer Kathleen Geier has posted a comprehensive guide aimed at housebound cinephiles jonesing for a deep catalog dive via online streaming. Her eclectic recommendations run the gamut, from classic Hollywood to indie, art house and world cinema.