Category Archives: Drama

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.

Cinema Therapy: 10 films that never let me down

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2020)

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and I’m getting emails like this:

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I’d reach for the Ben and Jerry’s…but my local grocery stores seem to be out of stock.

There’s been movement to offer first-run features online; Kino-Lorber will be launching “Kino Marquee” (which they refer to as “virtual screenings” as opposed to standard VOD) and Xfinity cable is now pushing a VOD feature called “Xfinity Movie Premiere”. I’d hazard a guess that other releasing studios and platforms will follow suit very shortly.

With more of us living la vida shut-in (as mandated by authorities and/or common sense), the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 10 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.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsating rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things are bound to get ugly, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about.

A unique film that fully engages the senses. Some may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a classic Greek tragedy; but it’s the final scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that always assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers.

Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Local Hero – This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

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The Maltese Falcon – This iconic noir, based on a classic Dashiell Hammett novel and marking the directing debut for a Mr. John Huston, is so vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist, that I don’t feel the need to recount the plot. 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. Equally memorable performances from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre (“Look what you did to my shirt!”), Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook, Jr. round things off quite nicely. I’ve lost count on my viewings of this one.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films I have seen that I have become  emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them.

Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and the wonderful screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time.The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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Spirited Away – Innovative Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki has made a lot of great films, but this may well be his crowning achievement. A young girl and her parents inadvertently stumble into a resort spa reserved exclusively for traditional Japanese deities and other assorted denizens of the spirit world. Needless to say, this “security breach” throws the phantasmagorical residents into quite a tizzy; Mom and Dad are turned into barnyard animals and their daughter has to rely on her wits and previously untapped inner strength to save them. Visually stunning and imaginative nearly beyond description, it also tells a beautiful story-funny, touching, exciting and empowering.

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 86 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment.

Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t explain.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time, period full stop (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi (definite contenders) it is akin to the unenviable task of describing color to a blind person.

I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…well, you’d probably say “Dennis, that sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I also told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh and say “I’m being punk’d, right?” Of course, there is much more to it. It’s about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s always one particular thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for a chance to pop out of a box to sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal                                     Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-television era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Over the hills and far away: 10 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 14, 2020)

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As this Tuesday is Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 10 grand film recommendations. Since public celebrations have been cancelled and health officials are advising to remain housebound for a spell, I’ve also noted any cable and/or digital platform availability where applicable (based on my Xfinity package; depending on your cable service, erm-“results may vary”).

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

However, these working-class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member/musician Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

Available for rental from iNDemand

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

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

Available for rental from Disney Studios

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

Available for purchase only from Xfinity on demand (no rental option)

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

Available for rental from Miramax

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

Available for rental from Miramax

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

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity. Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. It’s easy to overlook 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as the young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

Available from HBO on demand (free to subscribers)

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

Available from On Demand and ScreenPix

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

Available for rental from Paramount

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

Available for purchase only from Sony (no rental option)

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Song of the Sea – This 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. After his daughter is nearly swept away when she sleep walks into the nearby surf one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

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

Available from STARZEncore on demand (free to subscribers)

 

Bring back that sunny day: Weathering with You (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 29, 2020)

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It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!

February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.

In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.

I probably should have taken notes; some of the finer narrative details have slipped what’s left of my addled mind. But I remember the rain. There’s lots of rain. In fact the film opens with a rainstorm; a rather tempestuous one that tosses our young protagonist, a teenage runaway named Hokada (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) into the drink (he’s hopped on a ferry, fleeing his rural island home to lose himself in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo). He’s saved by a man named Keisuka (Shun Ogari), who hands Hokada his business card.

Rain-soaked Tokyo is a less-than-welcoming new home for the likes of Hokada, who finds himself sleeping in alleys for a spell, with naught but the clothes on his back and a growling stomach. One day, he encounters a compassionate girl around his age named Hina (Nana Mori), a fast food worker who gives him a free meal. Hina and Hokada are bonded by family difficulties; with Hokada being a runaway and Hina recently orphaned (she barely supports herself and her young brother with her meager McDonald’s wages).

Fate continues to bounce Hokada around like a tennis ball. Still living on the streets, Hokada crosses paths with a Yakuza; he barely survives the encounter and stumbles across a gun, which he decides to hang onto for protection. Still, he’s buoyed by his burgeoning friendship with Hina and decides to look up his rescuer from the ferry. Turns out his savior runs a somewhat dubious news stringer agency out of a cramped office.

Keisuka’s sole employee is his flirty 20-something niece, Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), who convinces her uncle to hire Hokada on spec to see if he can help them chase down stories to sell to tabloids. Hokada’s first assignment is to dig up some background for Keisuka’s article-in progress on a local legend regarding so-called “Sunshine Girls”, who allegedly have supernatural abilities to stop rain events purely through concentration and prayer.

One day by chance, Hokada is shocked to espy his new friend Hina being shepherded into a seedy exotic dance club by a less-than-savory looking character. Hokada pulls out the gun that he found earlier and confronts the man, who has intimidated Hina into working for him. Hokada and Hina flee to the rooftop of an abandoned building, where there is a Shinto shrine. Hina convinces Hokada to toss his gun away and reveals that she has the ability to stop rain with prayer. I know-that’s a lot to unpack in just one afternoon.

Therein lies the film’s main weakness…there’s too much to unpack in one afternoon (by the way, there are more developments to the story-so I haven’t spoiled anything). Shinkai can’t decide what he wants to convey: a coming-of-age tale, a social “message” drama, a fantasy, a statement about climate change. This may be an unfair comparison, but the narrative is not as focused and cohesive as in his previous effort, the outstanding 2017 film Your Name. That said, this is a very different type of story, and more ambitious in scope.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Weathering You, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

The ragman’s son: RIP Kirk Douglas

By Dennis Hartley

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Kirk Douglas December 9, 1916-February 5, 2020

This one hurts. Not a shocker at age 103. But still…this one hurts. Beyond a legend…last of a breed. Where do I even begin?

In his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas wrote:

The biggest lie is the lie we tell ourselves in the distorted visions we have of ourselves, blocking out some sections, enhancing others. What remains are not the cold facts of life, but how we perceive them. That’s really who we are.

An astute and particularly self-aware observation for an actor to make.  After all, you could say that actors “lie” for a living, always pretending to be someone they are not; “blocking out some sections, enhancing others” to best serve the character.  That said, the best actors are those who can channel this human flaw into a superpower that brings us face-to-face with “the cold facts of life” when necessary and reveal universal truths about “who we are”.

Kirk Douglas could do that with a glance, a gesture, a shrug. He was a very physical actor, but you had a sense there was a carefully calibrated intelligence informing every glance, every gesture, every shrug.

He played heroes and villains with equal elan but injected all of his characters with a relatable humanity.  He was one of the last players standing from the echelon of “classic” Hollywood…a true movie star.

I hope the Academy does him justice with a worthy tribute Sunday night. He deserves one. Ru in shlum, Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

Ultimately, the work speaks for itself.  There are so many great Douglas films, but here are 15 “must-sees” available right now via cable on-demand and rentals  (this is based on my Xfinity package; so depending  on your subscriptions, “results may vary”-as they say).

Spartacus (HITZ on demand)

Paths of Glory (ScreenPix on demand)

Ace in the Hole (Paramount PPV)

Lust for Life (Xfinity PPV)

Seven Days in May (Warner Brothers PPV)

Out of the Past (Warner Brothers PPV)

Lonely Are the Brave (Universal PPV)

Detective Story (Paramount PPV)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (STARZ on demand)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (EPIX, Prime Video, tubi)

Young Man With a Horn (Warner Brothers PPV)

The Bad and the Beautiful (Xfinity PPV)

Two Weeks in Another Town (TCM on demand)

I Walk Alone (Paramount PPV)

The Man From Snowy RIver (STARZ on demand)

Ten years gone: Top 10 films of the last decade

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Really? Another decade slipped by again when I wasn’t looking? This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the 400+ first-run films I reviewed between 2010 and 2019 and share my picks for the top 10 of the past 10 years. Happy viewing! Alphabetically…

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

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

(Full review)

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Blade Runner: 2049 So many films passing themselves off as “sci-fi” these days are needlessly loud and jarringly flash-cut. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story is not as deep or complex as the film makers want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90-minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing and immersive. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

(Full review)

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Certified Copy – Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve-ball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture.

(Full review)

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Computer Chess – The most original sci-fi film of 2013 proved you don’t need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people’s minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to watch. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird…then weirder. Dig that final shot!

(Full review)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of  writer-director Wes Anderson. To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession. I kind of enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to Anderson’s previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

(Full review)

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Love and Mercy – Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years.

(Full review)

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The Master – As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take-down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver a pair of knockout performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull.

(Full review)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam. What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

(Full review)

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Samsara – Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity.

(Full review)

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed, and cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

(Full review)