Category Archives: Drama

Forget it, Jake: RIP Robert Towne

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2024)

You know what they say: “They always come in threes.”

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for film buffs who grew up in the “New Hollywood” era. First, Donald Sutherland. Then Martin Mull. And now, as I’m just learning this evening:

The gift of his words, indeed. Although, it’s possible that his true gift was gleaning exactly what was better left unsaid. As he once observed: “Good dialogue illuminates what people are not saying.” Quality, not quantity.

A quick refresh on his credits reveals an impressive number of films of note on which he was “uncredited” for his contributions (Drive, He Said, Cisco Pike, The Godfather, The Parallax View, The Missouri Breaks, Marathon Man, et. al.) much less the classics that he is most well-known for.

It’s difficult for me to come up with adequate words to honor such a wordsmith, so I think I’ll follow his sage advice by not getting too flowery. Here are my top recommendations:

The Last Detail – Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

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

Here are my top 3:

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

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

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

Of course, I’ve also learned that if you put together a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll likely produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”, in every sense of the word.

The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 “conspiracy a-go-go” thriller stars Warren Beatty, who delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

The Yakuza – Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura are excellent in this complex culture clash/gangster drama. DIrector Sidney Pollack had major writing talent on board-Robert Towne and Paul Schrader (who scripted from a story idea by Schrader’s brother Leonard).

Shampoo – Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie).

Beatty allegedly based his character of “George” on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings).

This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much ado over brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic, empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and play. The women are shown to be just as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly give fearless performances. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard-driving coach.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance – If “offbeat noir” is your thing, this is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)

Noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino tapped him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission when Tierny barks “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).

Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted over the years, but his minimalist style works. While he was not credited, Robert Towne contributed to the script. The film has a David Lynch vibe at times (which could be due to the fact that Isabella Rossellini co-stars, and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).

Also recommended:

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (under a pseudonym)

The Two Jakes

The Firm

Tequila Sunrise (also directed)

Without Limits (also directed)

One more thing…

Towne may not have written the entire screenplay, but the scene he contributed to The Godfather is unforgettable and infinitely quotable:

Lazy, hazy, crazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2024)

Since it’s now officially summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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

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

Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel).

On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there.

Beautifully acted and directed. In 2022, Davison and Thomas appeared in Season 4 of the Netflix series Ozark (although they didn’t share any scenes).

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 2009 gangster drama Gomorra).

Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, an easy-going middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he tells a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”.

One day, his landlord drops in. He wants to take a weekend excursion with his mistress and asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for forgiveness on back rent, he requests Giovanni take a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Soon after, Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call; in lieu of a service charge he asks Giovanni if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

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. In a scene that reminded me of a classic 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 limited menu, but you’ll find every morsel worth savoring.

Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not normally synonymous, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a few lovers herself. As you may guess, this leads to amusing complications.

Love in all its guises is represented by a bevy of richly drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (the inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sensuous, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, and Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoon title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s films) that makes it unique and worthwhile.

A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting.

In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside creperie. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). A friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo).

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. Don’t despair; it won’t (as Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves states regarding a Rohmer film) be akin to “watching paint dry”. Even a neophyte will glean the director’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy).

Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play.

His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”?

The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s.

The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Tribeca 2024: Some Rain Must Fall (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2024)

Writer-director Qui Yang’s character study focuses on a middle-class family in crisis. While waiting in a school gym to pick up her daughter, Cai (Yu Aier) is hit by a stray ball. Preoccupied, she reflexively hurls it back in the direction it came from, unintentionally injuring a elderly woman (off-camera). The incident triggers an existential malaise already long-percolating due to her imminent plans to file divorce papers against her husband (who is trying to talk her out of it) and her increasingly strained relationship with her uncommunicative daughter.

A setup very much in the vein of Diary of a Mad Housewife, but unfortunately not in the same league. Overall glacial pacing is not helped by the murky cinematography-which makes it frustratingly difficult to read the actor’s faces (the dialog is minimal; so how can the audience connect with any of the characters when it looks like everything was filmed with a hidden camera?).

Tribeca 2024: The Dog Thief (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2024)

The future doesn’t look so bright for orphaned, semi-literate working class teenager Martin (Franklin Aro). Cruelly ridiculed by his bourgeois schoolmates, Martin ekes out a meager living as a shoeshine boy on the streets of La Paz and is only afforded lodging by the good graces of his late mother’s friend, who works as a maid in the spacious home of an ailing widow. Martin’s most loyal shoeshine customer is well-to-do tailor Mr. Novoa (Alfredo Castro). Novoa is an empty-nester who spends his off-hours training and pampering his prized German Shepherd.

One day, Martin has a sudden brainstorm for a get-rich-quick scheme; he will kidnap Mr. Novoa’s dog and then enlist his best bud to “find” it and collect the reward. As Martin ingratiates himself into insular Mr. Novoa’s life (initially as part of the scheme), an unexpected bond develops between the two, greatly complicating Martin’s not so-masterminded caper.

Reminiscent of P. T. Anderson’s Hard Eight, writer-director Vinko Tomičić Salinas’ film makes excellent use of the La Paz locales, rendered in a decidedly neorealist style (not so surprising, given the title’s wordplay on Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves). Keep an eye on this filmmaker.

Tribeca 2024: Come Closer (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2024)

Writer-director Tom Nesher’s character study concerns a young woman named Eden (Lia Elalouf) who is besotted by grief over the tragic death of her younger brother. While attending her brother’s funeral, she notices a bereaved young woman (Darya Rosenn) whom she has never met. As Eden and her late brother had few secrets between them, the presence and behavior of this mysterious stranger intrigues her. When Eden’s initial attempt to reach out to the young woman is met by a cold shoulder, her curiosity quickly turns to anger, jealousy, then obsession. Just when you think the story is headed for standard stalker thriller territory, it takes a wholly unexpected turn. A moving and absorbing drama, bolstered by brave and sensitive performances from Elalouf and Rosenn.

Tribeca 2024: Don’t You Let Me Go (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

The protracted opening scene of Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s drama (set at a wake) is so drenched in sorrow and raw emotion that it becomes something akin to grief porn. But just as I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be some kind of endurance test, one insular young woman breaks away from the proceedings to catch some air. Her name is Adela, and the recently departed was Elena, her closest friend since childhood. Adela is heading for her car when she espies a bus that seems to have appeared from nowhere. Intrigued, she boards it.

From this point onward, the narrative shifts from temporal to metaphysical concerns-as this is no ordinary bus (thank you driver for getting me here). Abracadabra …Adela has been transported to a weekend summer idyll with Elena and a mutual friend at a beach cottage. Whether this is a sense memory or a wishful conjuring on Adela’s part is not clear (shades of Tarkovsky’s Solaris). What begins as a sobering meditation on grief and loss becomes an uplifting fable about friendship, love, and savoring every morsel of joy that comes your way.

SIFF 2024: The New Boy (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

Writer-director Warwick Thornton’s drama stars Cate Blanchett as a nun in the Outback charged with schooling a young, taciturn Aboriginal orphan who may harbor supernatural powers. The story is set in the early 1940s, at a monastery where Aboriginal children are cared for until deemed old enough (16?) to get packed off to earn their own keep. The students are largely portrayed by non-professional actors, lending the film a naturalistic feel. Despite an interesting premise (Western religious dogma vs. Indigenous mysticism) the film gets bogged down by its draggy pacing and an uneven narrative that vacillates somewhere between Peter Weir’s The Last Wave and (thanks to Blanchett’s over-the-top antics) Ken Russell’s The Devils.

SIFF 2024: Solitude (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

Ah, look at all the lonely people. Ninna Pálmadóttir’s quiet drama concerns an unassuming farmer named Gunnar (Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson) who reluctantly sells his beloved horses and relocates to Reykjavik after getting pushed off his land by a hydroelectric project. He has received a generous settlement, which enables him to offer cash for a condo.

For Gunnar, moving to the city is tantamount to getting drop-kicked into the 21st Century; he is overwhelmed by the stimuli. He strikes up a sweet friendship with a bubbly 10-year-old paperboy named Ari. The boy’s parents are separated. While they try to share equal time with their son, squabbles arise over scheduling conflicts, frequently leaving Ari in the lurch. As a result, Gunnar becomes his de facto babysitter. Gunnar’s naivety eventually leads to a misunderstanding that could have serious consequences for him. A beautifully acted treatise on the singularly destructive power of “assumption”. 

SIFF 2024: The Missing(***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 11, 2024)

Writer-director Carl Joseph Papa uses a combination of rotoscoping and hand-drawn animation for this semi-autobiographical drama (the Philippines’ first animated Oscars submission for Best International Feature). A young gay animator who has been mute since childhood suffers a break from reality after discovering his uncle’s body during a wellness check. As the young man comes to grips with suppressed memories, what ensues is an honest, raw, and emotional look at the effects of childhood trauma.

SIFF 2024: I Told You So (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 11, 2024)

Set in Rome during a freakish January heatwave, writer-director Ginevra Elkann’s network narrative (reminiscent of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia) follows the travails of several characters in crisis: an alcoholic mother who has lost custody of her little girl, a faded 80s porn actress coming to grips with her mortality, a bulimic young woman who provides elder care for a woman with a shopping addiction, and an American ex-pat priest struggling with his junkie past. As the heat rises, so does the angst.  Episodic; despite a fine cast and some nicely played scenes, the narrative threads never quite gelled for me.