Category Archives: Drama

Marvel-less: Top 10 of 2022

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2022)

It’s time for the obligatory list, culled from the first-run films I reviewed in 2022:

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Day by Day – Felix Herngren’s dramedy (scripted by Tapio Leopold) is a delightful, life-affirming road movie from Sweden about…death. Before a terminally ill man (Sven Wallter) can make his getaway for a solo trip to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic, several of his longtime friends at the retirement home catch wind of his plans, and it turns into a group outing (much to his chagrin). Lovely European travelogue (nicely photographed by Viktor Davidson). Funny and touching (yes …I laughed, I cried). Sadly, Wallter passed away soon after the film wrapped, adding poignancy to his performance.

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Drunken Birds ­– Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional, and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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The Integrity of Joseph Chambers – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance.

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The Man in the Basement (aka L’Homme de la Cave) – There are fifty shades of Chabrol in Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann).  One of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One) plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage. With the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple realize too late that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they find out that his online persona is every liberal’s nightmare. Always check references!

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Moonage Daydream – David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Of all his personas, “David Jones” is the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy film, even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself. This is anything but a traditional, linear biography. Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones remains elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is absorbing and ultimately moving. Think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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My Love Affair With Marriage – It’s a safe bet that the most oft-asked question throughout history (well, after “Where’s the restroom?”) is “What is love?”. Philosophers, poets, writers, psychologists and even scientists have tackled this age-old query, and come up with just as many disparate explanations. This lack of consensus informs the clever conceit behind Latvian animator Signe Baumane’s mixed-media feature.

Baumane’s semi-autobiographical study follows “Zelma” as she navigates the various passages of sexual self-awareness from childhood to adulthood…which then presents her with the complexities of love and relationships. Zelma’s vignettes are interspersed with neuroscience/biochemistry analyses done in the style of high school educational films (remember those?), with the odd musical number thrown in. Funny, touching, and insightful.

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Nude Tuesday – I must warn you: this film (from New Zealand) is complete gibberish. Literally…the dialog is spoken in a made-up language. Frankly, I was fully prepared to find this gimmick annoying, but thankfully a) there are subtitles and b) the film is nonetheless entertaining.

Writer-director Armagan Ballantyne’s off-the wall dramedy concerns middle-aged couple Laura and Bruno (co-screenwriter Jackie van Beek and Damon Harriman), who have hit a roadblock in their marriage. Bruno’s mother browbeats them into attending a couple’s retreat, to rekindle their passion. The resort is lorded over by a free-spirited sex guru (played with aplomb by Jemaine Clement). Vacillating between riotous cringe comedy and surprising sweetness, the film also pokes gentle fun at “self-actualization” culture (reminiscent of Bill Persky’s 1980 satire Serial).

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Sweetheart Deal ­– Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.

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Polystyrene: I Am A Cliché – I reckon few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She not only fearlessly waded into the male-dominated punk world of the late 70s (which, despite its association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was an overtly “laddish” club), but did  so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and a unique, powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to this absorbing documentary (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk. A lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist. (Full review). (Streaming on Hulu)

Honorable mentions:

A couple of 2022 releases I didn’t initially review, but recommend:

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Kimi– I somehow missed this tight little thriller from Steven Soderbergh when it dropped on HBO Max earlier this year, but stumbled across it recently (so much content, so little time). Zoe Kravitz gives a terrific performance as an agoraphobic tech who works from home for a corporation called Amygdala, monitoring their A-I product “Kimi” (rhymes with “Siri”). When she happens across a digital file that may have captured audio of a woman’s murder, her world gets turned upside down. A clever mash-up of Rear Window, Repulsion, and The Conversation, with a whiff of The Parallax View… updated for the age of pandemic paranoia. David Keopp scripted.

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Confess, Fletch – First, my confession that I’ve always had a soft spot for the first Fletch film with Chevy Chase (never saw Fletch Lives). But I was intrigued to see a resurrection of the franchise 33 years after the previous entry, and pleasantly surprised at how entertaining Greg Mottola’s adaptation of Gregory McDonald’s eponymous 1976 comedy-mystery was. I swear Jon Hamm is channeling Cary Grant throughout, and he is ably supported by a delightful cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Kyle MacLachlan, and Roy Wood, Jr. Granted, it’s lightweight fare, but I haven’t laughed this hard at a modern comedy for grown-ups in quite some time.

…and just for giggles

Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 16 years?! I was but a child of 50 when I began in November of 2006 (I was much older then, but I’m younger than that now). Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing for Hullabaloo.

(You may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Desert One, Love Spreads, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Pacified, 76 Days, Tommaso, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Weathering With You

2021

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Fire Music, Heist of the Century, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, The Last Film Show, The Paper Tigers, The Pebble and the Boy, Surge, Waikiki, Whelm

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 8, 2022)

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What a difference an administration makes.

On October 9th, 2020, the Former Occupant of the White House issued an official Columbus Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.

On October 7th, 2022 (and for the 2nd year in a row now) President Biden issued an official Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the sovereignty, resilience, and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world; and we recommit to upholding our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, strengthening our Nation-to-Nation ties.

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed from ancestral lands, displaced, assimilated, and banned from worshiping or performing many sacred ceremonies. Yet today, they remain some of our greatest environmental stewards. They maintain strong religious beliefs that still feed the soul of our Nation. And they have chosen to serve in the United States Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group. Native peoples challenge us to confront our past and do better, and their contributions to scholarship, law, the arts, public service, and more continue to guide us forward.

I learned long ago that Tribal Nations do better when they make their own decisions.  That is why my Administration has made respect for Tribal sovereignty and meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations the cornerstone of our engagement and why I was proud to restore the White House Council on Native American Affairs.  To elevate Indigenous voices across our Government, I appointed Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, along with more than 50 other Native Americans now in significant roles across the executive branch.

My Administration is also directly delivering for Native communities — creating jobs, providing critical services, and restoring and preserving sacred Tribal lands.  We have made the biggest investment in Indian Country in history, securing billions for pandemic recovery, infrastructural improvements, and climate change resilience, and we are working together with Tribal Nations to end the scourge of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Pledging to end the scourge of violence against human beings, but nary a peep about protecting monuments? Preserving sacred Tribal lands while (apparently) letting the National Garden of American Heroes go to seed? Where are your priorities, Joe?!

I mean…come ON, man!

At any rate…in honor of this coming Monday’s Indigenous People’s Day , here are 10 films well worth your time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies.

A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can.

Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.

Lord, I’m so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

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(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)

Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead

-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?

I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).

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Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.

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Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.

Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.

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Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).

Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.

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On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Blu-ray reissue: Heartbreakers (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Heartbreakers (Fun City Editions)

Earlier this year, I posted my picks for the top 10 1980s “sleepers”, lamenting about how several of them remained criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. I was quite surprised (and delighted) to see this 1984 gem finally making the cut.

Writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

Fun City used a newly restored 2K print for the transfer (DP on the film was longtime Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus, and his work here is gorgeous). Extras include new interviews with the director, as well as stars Coyote and Mancuso, and a booklet with several new critic essays.

Instant International Film Festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 6, 2022)

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Ah, the dog days of August-when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring super pets, UFOS, thunder gods, child supervillains or alpha fighter pilots with a need for speed; but if I’m in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.

If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering the Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a “Best of the Festival Festival” (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).

These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!

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Another Earth – 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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Bad Black– Some films defy description. This is one of them. 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 – 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 – 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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Kurt Cobain: About a Son – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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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Polisse – 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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Poppy Shakespeare – 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 – 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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The Rocket – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a winning 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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Telstar – 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 – 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)

Tribeca 2022: The Integrity of Joseph Chambers ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance.

SIFF 2022: Drunken Birds (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication.

 

SIFF 2022: Juju Stories (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Submitted for your approval…an anthology of three modern urban horror tales steeped in juju lore (directed by Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama, and C.J. Obasi). It’s an uneven collection; the most compelling of the triptych is Obasi’s “Suffer the Witch”. The film is presented by the Surreal 16 Collective, described as “…an initiative that intends to create artistically minded films that move away from the reigning imperialism of Nollywood aesthetics and production practices”.

Over the hills and far away: 15 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2022)

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Saint Patrick’s Day is this coming Thursday, so I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations. Sláinte!

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The Commitments –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. In 2007, cast member 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.

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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!”.

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A Date for Mad Mary – Seana Kerslake makes a remarkable debut in Darren Thornton’s 2017 dramedy (co-written by the director with his brother Colin) 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.

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem. It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comic in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations. An insightful and affecting glimpse at the human condition.

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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.

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I Am Belfast – I try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive for the indescribable when I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit.

I’m pretty sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (I know Cousins loves that movie, because he gushed over it in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). The lovely cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience  for patient viewers.

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In Bruges – OK, full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a somewhat lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, then a third… I realized that I like this film quite a lot (happens sometimes…nobody’s perfect!).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb and an adjective.

 

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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).

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Miller’s Crossing–his 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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My Left Foot – 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 moving 1989 biopic concerns Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical challenges.

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. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

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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.

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Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  Original full review

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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 gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although tame by modern standards, romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara are quite fervid for the era. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

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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!

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his 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 by the sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the 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 a genuine sense of heart in Moore’s use of hand-drawn animation; something sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” glutting multiplexes these days.

Peeking at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 5, 2022)

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It was announced late last month that the Oscar telecast will be even more streamlined than last year’s, and in a manner that has raised a few eyebrows:

Several of the 23 categories that were presented live on the air during last year’s 93rd Oscars telecast will not be presented live on the air during the 94th Oscars telecast on March 27, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

In a move that is already causing tension within the leadership of the Academy, but is likely to be well received by the general public, the presentations and acceptance of eight awards — documentary short, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound — will take place inside the Dolby Theatre an hour before the live telecast commences, will be recorded and will then be edited into the subsequent live broadcast, a variation of a controversial approach that the Academy first adopted and then abandoned in 2018. (The Tony Awards employs a similar model.)

The Academy declined comment.

Hmm. If the intention here is to cater to the (perceived or otherwise) short attention span of a “general public” easily lured from traditional network TV broadcasts by the siren call of social media (or perhaps the myriad digital platforms at their fingertips, chockablock with so much tantalizing, commercial-free, erm, “content”)-then why give the boot to the presentations for all three short film categories?

Be that as it may, the good news is that the 15 nominees (bundled by category) are making the rounds in select theaters; each 5-film collection runs around the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (not every theater is exhibiting all 3 collections; more info about venues and tickets can be found here). Some of the nominees are now streaming; I’ve noted platforms below where applicable.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) The nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Affairs of the Art (UK/Canada; 16 minutes) – Directed by Joanna Quinn and written by Les Mills, this is the latest installment in a series featuring “Beryl”, a 59-year-old factory worker who dreams of becoming “a hyper-futurist artiste”. Beryl works on her art and shares anecdotes about her off-the-wall family. This was my first exposure to the character, and I will say that she is…a free spirit. It’s not 100% comprehensible, but mordantly amusing at times. Not for all tastes. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **½

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Bestia (Chile; 16 minutes) – This stop-motion film by Hugo Covarrubias is a portrait of a female secret police agent, set during a military dictatorship in Chile. Inspired by true events (which I would assume to be a reference to the Pinochet era). Dark and disturbing. (Now streaming on Vimeo)

Rating: ***

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Boxballet (Russia; 15 minutes) – Anton Dyakov’s film is an expressionistic Beauty and the Beast-style tale of a love affair between a ballerina and a boxer. Allusions to Russia’s transition from the Soviet era add political subtext. Imaginative and affecting.

Rating: ***½

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Robin Robin (UK; 31 minutes) – Through no fault of its own, this Pixar-style film (directed by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please) feels out of place, relative to the other 4 program selections (which all have adult themes). A young robin is adopted by a family of mice, and grows up dreaming of becoming a stealthy mouse burglar. Strictly for the kiddies, but it’s charming and tuneful, featuring voice-overs by Richard E. Grant and Gillian Anderson. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Windshield Wiper (Spain; 15 minutes) – Alberto Mielgo’s treatise on the age-old question “What is love?” is a mesmerizing piece quite reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. A man sits in a café, chain-smoking and pondering the mysteries of amour. A series of vignettes ensue; a dream within a dream, all eventually leading back to the dreamer. I’m sorry …what was the question? I’m intrigued to see more from this director. (Streaming via Short of the Week)

Rating: ****

Note: With the exception of Robin Robin, this year’s Animated Program is definitely intended for an adult audience. To be specific, there are depictions of male/female nudity, sex, animal abuse, extreme violence, and ah, bestiality. Moving on…

Nominees for Best Short Film-Documentary:

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Audible (USA; 38 minutes) – This beautifully made film recalls Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, with a depth that takes it well beyond the realm of a standard “sports documentary”. Director Matt Ogens focuses on the lives of a high school football player and his friends, who all attend the Maryland School for the Deaf. A coming-of-age story with surprising twists and turns that will have you both cheering and crying. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ****

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Lead Me Home (USA; 39 minutes) – There are 500,000 Americans without a roof over their head every night, and many more “one paycheck away” from the street. This timely and multifaceted look at homelessness is a sobering metric on the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in America. Co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk profile individuals from the homeless communities of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. What becomes abundantly clear is that you cannot paint “the homeless” with one brush. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Queen of Basketball (USA; 22 minutes) – While I’m not really a sports guy, I suspect I am not the only person who has never heard of Luisa Harris. But director Ben Proudfoot is here to set us straight. When you learn about her jaw-dropping achievements, you’ll become an instant fan; especially once you meet Harris herself…soft-spoken and unassuming, but a true athletic hero in every sense of the word. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: ***½

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Three Songs for Benazir (Afghanistan; 22 minutes) – Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei’s film offers a rare glimpse at life in one of the many displacement camps in Afghanistan (this one in Kabul). The filmmakers focus on a young man named Shaista. Newly married, Shaista is determined to be the first from his tribe to serve in the Afghan National Army (his options for making a living appear to be otherwise severely limited). A surprisingly intimate portrait of hope and resilience in the face of an uncertain future. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***½

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When We Were Bullies (Germany/USA; 36 minutes) – Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt experiences a cosmic coincidence that prompts a trip down memory lane to reexamine a bullying incident that occurred in his 5th grade year at a Brooklyn elementary school. Leans toward the navel-gazing side but holds enough fascination as a Rashomon meets Lord of the Flies rumination on memory, perception, and mob psychology.

Rating: ***

Nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action:

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Ala Kachuu-Take and Run (Switzerland; 38 minutes) – A 19-year-old Kyrgyz woman (Alina Turdumamatova) is on her way to fulfilling her ambition to study in the country’s capital city when she is kidnapped by a group of men who whisk her back to her home village for a forced marriage. When even her mother refuses to intervene on her behalf, she desperately turns to her own wits and determination to find a way out. Maria Brendle’s film is a hard look at a cultural practice in Kyrgyzstan that, despite being declared illegal in 1994, continues unabated in rural areas of that nation.

Rating: ***

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On My Mind (Denmark; 18 minutes) – Martin Strange-Hansen’s affecting “man walks into a bar” story confounds your expectations by such a degree that I shall say no more.

Rating: ****

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Please Hold (USA; 19 minutes) –There are echoes of 1984, Brazil, Robocop, and THX 1138 in KD Davila’s Kafkaesque tale of a hapless Everyman (Erick Lopez) placed under arrest by a police drone. Given no explanation, he is “escorted” to a privatized self-check-in lock-up. Convinced his predicament is due to a bureaucratic error, he frantically navigates to “talk to a human” for legal help. The American justice system as a “customer service” / AI nightmare.

Rating: ***

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The Dress (Poland; 30 minutes) – A character study of a woman in her late 20s (Anna Dzieduszycka) who lives a life of quiet desperation and reliable disappointment. Guarded and prickly around strangers, she fantasizes about having her first sexual experience. When sparks fly between her and a truck driver, her nightly brooding changes to hopeful reverie. An uncompromising examination of ingrained societal attitudes regarding female body image, beautifully acted. Directed by Tadeusz Lysiak.

Rating: ***½

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The Long Goodbye (UK; 12 minutes) – Riz Ahmed stars in this “near future” drama about a South Asian family suddenly propelled into a dystopian horror show while they are in the middle of preparing for a wedding. Visceral and intense, imbued with the noblest intentions of making a statement about the odious resurgence of nativism in the UK, but the piece is so heavy-handed that it ultimately shoots itself in the foot. Especially disappointing that this is from Aniel Karia, whose outstanding feature debut Surge made my top 10 of 2021. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **