Category Archives: Drama

Blu-ray reissue: Mirror (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Mirror (The Criterion Collection)

Forgive me as I draw the chalk backwards (shameless middlebrow that I am) but watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 drama for the first time made me reassess my cheeky 2011 review of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. My opinion of Malick’s film hasn’t changed, but I can now state with confidence that I “get” what he was aiming for (also see: my review of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog).

In my experience, Tarkovsky’s films (Solaris, Stalker, Ivan’s Childhood, The Sacrifice, et.al.) are a wash the first time I see them but gain resonance upon repeat viewings. Yes, that’s a long-winded way of saying they are “challenging”. On reflection (sorry), Mirror is the most challenging of all; perhaps because it is Tarkovsky’s most personal statement.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Upon its initial release, Mirror received cheeky reviews from Soviet critics, who dismissed it as too obscure and self-indulgent. However, history has been kinder regarding this journey to the center of Tarkovsky’s mind. The film plays like a mashup of Amarcord, Wild Strawberries, and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge; equal parts personal memoir, history lesson and postcards from the subconscious.

Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a new 2K digital restoration, which enhances an already visually stunning film. Extras include The Dream in the Mirror, an absorbing new documentary by Louise Milne and Seán Martin that lends thoughtful context to the more enigmatic elements of the film, and Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, a 2019 documentary by his son Andrei A. Tarkovsky (which I haven’t had a chance to view yet).

Blu-ray reissue: Five (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Five (Imprint Films; region-free)

Writer-director Arch Oboler’s 1951 film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as “seminal” Cold War era nuclear survivor dramas like On the Beach, Panic in the Year Zero, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil-but it predates them all by at least a decade. Despite its low budget, no-name cast and relative obscurity, Five is Oboler’s magnum opus (especially compared to the rest of his oeuvre, which is largely comprised of psychotronic fare like Bwana Devil, The Twonky, and The Bubble).

The setup is familiar; a handful of survivors from disparate sociopolitical and ethnic backgrounds find each other after a nuclear holocaust. They end up living together in an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house on a California mountaintop. It doesn’t take long for the joy of newfound camaraderie and spirit of egalitarianism to wane, as the story becomes a cautionary parable a la Animal Farm.

When I re-watched the film recently, I was surprised at how relevant certain elements are to our current political climate (particularly when one survivor outs himself as a fascistic white supremacist-which begs comparisons to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat). Oboler’s choice of exterior locales is imaginative (e.g., a haunting scene that features characters wandering through a devastated cityscape is quite effective and belies the modest $75,000 budget).

Image and sound on the Imprint Films Blu-ray displays a marked improvement over the Sony Pictures DVD. The new commentary track with film critic Glenn Erickson and Oboler expert Matthew Rovner is packed with insightful observations and fascinating trivia about the making of the film. There is also an engaging 25-minute video essay by journalist and film critic Kim Newman, who sheds light on Oboler’s earlier career producing radio dramas in the 1940s. A must-have for the “post-apocalyptic” completist.

Blu-ray reissue: Radio On (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Radio On (BFI; be advised that this Blu-ray is Region “B” locked)

You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark monochrome is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

BFI’s reissue package is a dream come true for admirers of the film (I am a full-fledged cult member). The new 4K restoration was struck from the original camera negative, and it looks amazing. Audio quality is outstanding as well (especially important with that great music soundtrack). There are hours of extras; the most interesting one for me is a new 52-minute feature called “A Little bit Kitsch, But Ice Cold: Retro-futurism in Focus” an enlightening retrospective with director Petit and BFI Video Publishing’s Vic Pratt (a super-fan of the film).

Tribeca 2021: The Last Film Show (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies.

Nomadland: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2021)

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Writers spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.

Consequently, films about writers and/or writing can be a tough row to hoe (how do you parlay the seed of inspiration blooming in a writer’s mind into a visual?). Consider Caroline Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, of which I had no idea was a semi-autobiographical story about the germination of a writer until a screen crawl at the end informed me so.

The writer in question is Judith Kerr (who passed away at 95 in 2019, just months before the film premiered in Germany). I was an avid reader as a kid, but somehow missed Ms. Kerr’s trilogy of children’s books “Out of the Hitler Time”. First published in 1971, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” was volume one of that series (as I have come to learn).

This family-friendly drama (adapted from Kerr’s novel by Link with Anna Brüggemann) centers on 9-year-old Anna Kemper (Riva Krymalowski), who lives with her parents and her older brother Max (Marinus Hohman) in late Weimer Germany. Her mother (Carla Juri) is a classical pianist, and her father (Oliver Mascucci) is a high-profile theater critic.

As this is Berlin in 1933, the elephant in the room is one Adolph Hitler, who is on the verge of dominating the imminent election. And as the Kempers are Jewish, this is not the ideal time for them to be in Berlin. While the Nazis have yet to “officially” seize control, Anna’s dad has been an outspoken critic of Hitler for a spell and awaits the election results with consternation. Informed that he’s on the Nazis’ “list”, he takes a trip to Prague, instructing his family to meet up with him in Switzerland should Hitler prevail.

When Hitler prevails, the family must pack quickly and skedaddle. They also must pack light, forcing Anna to make a difficult choice to leave her beloved stuffed pink rabbit behind, under the watchful eye of the family’s devoted housekeeper (Ursula Werner). Soon after the family reunites in Switzerland, Anna learns that the Nazis have not only absconded with Pink Rabbit, but all the Kemper’s possessions (and burned Dad’s books).

Despite the country’s alleged neutrality, things get a little hot in Switzerland after a few months and the family moves to Paris. When word reaches the Kempers that the Nazis have put a price on dad’s head, they eventually have to flee France to merry old England.

The initial scenes of the family hiking through lush Swiss Alpine scenery suggests you may have been roped into an unofficial remake of The Sound of Music, but ultimately When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is better viewed as The Diary of Anne Frank with a less heartbreaking postscript. I don’t intend that as a glib observation; after all, the wartime experiences of young “Anna” mirror those of Kerr herself…this is her life story.

The film is not really “about” Hitler, the Nazis, or even WW2. Rather, it is about the resilience of children, and the power of a child’s imagination. Through Anna’s eyes (helped immensely by young Krymalowski’s wonderful performance) I found myself transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. It’s that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).

Certain elements of Anna’s story resonated with me in a personal way (aside from the fact that she and I both had a Jewish mother). I think it’s because I grew up as a military brat. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

One way I coped with the constant uprooting was to retreat into my rather vivid imagination. I remember creating comic books (mostly involving adventures in outer space) featuring characters named after friends I met along the way. I also wrote short stories for my own amusement. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but was triggered by watching Anna noodle caricatures and such throughout the film (Judith Kerr also did the illustrations for her books).

Nazi Germany is something we can only hope never again occurs in any way, shape, or form. There are myriad films you can watch if you wish to steep in the utter horror of it all. But even during wartime, life goes on. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is best likened to the selective recollections of a carefree childhood: no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

(“When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” is currently streaming via SIFF Channel)

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 24, 2021)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of Oscar weekend. Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (presented in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains director Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Milius, it’s an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.

2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they  last long enough.

3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a master screenwriter (Robert Towne), two leads at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (Jerry Goldsmith), you end up with a film that deserves to be called a “classic” on every front.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II (A tough call, to be sure).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for men in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this shit up.

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this cynical age we live in, once upon a time there were these things called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and basic human decency. Ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic (which he co-wrote with Charles Spaak) is at its heart a treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich van Stroheim head up a fine cast.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel by John Huston for his directing debut, is vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist…so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that. Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and of course Peter Lorre as ‘Joel Cairo’ (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as the immortal Howard Beale). 45 years on, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient, Oscar-winning screenplay does not only prophesy news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age. Fantastic work from a cast that also includes William Hoden, Faye Dunaway (who won for Best Actress), Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight (who won Best Supporting Actress). But alas…no ‘Best Picture’ statue.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction- With the cottage industry of Pulp Fiction wannabes that spewed forth in its wake, it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film was. Depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek? Um, yes?

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump (Still difficult for me to accept.)

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose recollections are seamlessly interwoven, like a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and warmly intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just took it for an umpteenth spin the other night, and laughed as if I was watching it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators through the years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Liang Ming’s drama is an ambitious feature debut–perhaps overly so. Set in northeast China, the film begins as a character study about a brother and sister struggling to make ends meet in a fishing town. The young woman (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented worker and on the verge of losing her hotel maid job. Her half-brother (Xiaoliang Wu) has just lost his fishing job.

When the siblings befriend the free-spirited daughter of a prosperous mob boss, the sister oddly begins to act like a jilted (lover?) once her brother and their new friend start sleeping together…but there is no explanation as to why. There is a suggestion that the two women have the hots for each other, but that thread goes nowhere fast. About 40 minutes in there is a hint that you’re now watching a crime thriller, but no thrills ensue. Ultimately the film is a wash.

SIFF 2021: Topside (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Be advised: This stark, intense and harrowing drama about homelessness and heroin addiction is not for the squeamish (count me among the squeamish). Co-writers and directors Logan George and Celine Held’s film begins literally in the dark underbelly of New York City…and figuratively works its way down from there.

A homeless single mother (Held) and her 5-year old daughter (Zhaila Farmer) survive hand-to-mouth living in an abandoned subway tunnel. When city officials order a sweep of the subterranean community, mother and daughter are forced “topside” onto the mean streets. Not a “feel good” film, but the most gripping and heartbreaking junkie drama I’ve seen since Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 character study The Panic in Needle Park.

SIFF 2021: The Salt in Our Waters (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s sumptuously photographed variation on the venerable “city mouse-country mouse” scenario concerns a metropolitan sculptor (Titas Zia) who travels to a remote fishing village in the Bangladeshi Delta for a sabbatical. Inspired by the beauty of the coast (as well as one of the young women), he begins work on new pieces. Some villagers are puzzled by his sculptures (which they view as “idols” with no practical purpose) but are hospitable to their guest.

However, when the fishermen find their nets are suddenly coming up short (due to rising tides), the recently arrived outsider becomes a convenient straw man for the “Chairman”, the local head cleric and village leader. A compelling, beautifully acted drama that makes salient observations on tradition vs. modernity and science vs. fundamentalism.

SIFF 2021: Beans (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Tracey Deer’s impressive debut (co-written with Meredith Vuchnich) is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a 12 year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed “Beans” (Kiawentiio). Beans’ preteen turmoil and angst is juxtaposed with a retelling of the 1990 “Oka crisis” standoff in Quebec, which involved a land dispute between Mohawk protesters and Canadian law enforcement.

Beans, her little sister, father and pregnant mother find themselves in the thick of the (at times life-threatening) racist backlash from the local Quebecois settler community. Deer’s interweaving of documentary realism (via archival news footage of the crisis) with wonderful, naturalistic performances from her cast makes for an absorbing social drama.