Category Archives: Drama

Please rewind: 80s Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2022)

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection (yes, I’ve hung on to a few), put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. Several of my selections remain criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (are you listening, boutique reissue studios?). Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.

Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she is to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm), which leads to a bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark subtexts; yet there is also sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley gives a nuanced performance that belies her age as young Alice, and the late Jim Henson works his magic with the creature creations for the fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers (VHS only)– In this 1984 drama, 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).

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Light of Day (VHS only)– From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study (scripted by the director) concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.

Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock ’n’ roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated, but nixed).

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Liquid Sky Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (the alien is a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score.

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One Night Stand (VHS only) – An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe (ahem). In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid  (VHS only)–What I adore most about this 1987 dramedy from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts dread: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly (they don’t make ‘em like this anymore).

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 neo-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop  (VHS only) – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence.

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

Bolstered by a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft blend of belly-laugh hilarity and bittersweet emotion. Excellent supporting cast, especially Thom Bell, who injects humanity into an otherwise vile character. Sadly, the talented Lloyd never broke big; she went on to do a few relatively unremarkable projects, and then dropped off the radar.

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Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Dee: Jane, do you ever feel like you are just this far from being completely hysterical twenty-four hours a day?

Jane: Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty-four hours a day.

— from Grand Canyon, screenplay by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan

HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

— from 2001: A Space Odyssey, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

George Fields: [to Dorothy/Michael] I BEGGED you to get therapy!

— from Tootsie, screenplay by Murray Schisgal

With more of us living la vida shut-in these days , the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 12 personal faves that I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; films I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, feeling anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down. Take one or two before bedtime; cocktail optional.

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

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things get complicated, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about. A unique film that fully engages the senses. You may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but it’s the last scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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The Dish – This 2000 Australian sleeper is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is quite moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on the 1997 dramedy The Castle (recommended!).

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that has been labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never recorded a studio album and stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

An enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and glean a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Diva is an entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) informs Jules. Slick, stylish and cheeky with an engaging international cast.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s clever script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and feels as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (like John snorting the Coke bottle). Music highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Harold and Maude – Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens.

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

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

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films that I have become emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Perhaps best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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My Neighbor Totoro  – While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits.

It’s a lovely tale about a young professor and his two daughters settling into their new country house (a “fixer-upper”) while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring and stumbles into the verdant court of a “king” nestled within the roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (an amalgam of every plush toy you ever cuddled with as a child).

Granted, it’s Miyazaki’s most simplistic and kid-friendly tale…but that’s not a put down. Miyazaki’s usual themes remain intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements magical, yet the human characters remain down-to-earth and easy to relate to. A charmer.

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

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

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

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 88 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. Not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, long-form music video, and mockumentary. The vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”.

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

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

BONUS!

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

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

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal

Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

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

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

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

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

Blu-ray reissue: Prince of the City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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Prince of the City (Warner Archive)

Sidney Lumet directed this powerful drama based on the true story of NYC narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.

Warner Archive has a habit of skimping on the extras; this release is no exception, but this is the best-looking print of it I’ve seen since I first caught it in a theater back in 1981.

Blu-ray reissue: The Gambler [1974] (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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The Gambler (Imprint Films; Region ‘B’)

While there have been many films about degenerate gamblers, the twist in Karel Reisz’s 1974 character study is that the protagonist is also a college literature professor with a penchant for discussing the ethical dilemmas faced by Dostoevsky characters (leaving it up to the viewer to determine whether he’s lecturing to his students…or to himself?).

James Caan tackles this complex role with aplomb. Screenwriter (and future director) James Toback was inspired by the eponymous Dostoevsky story, but also drew from his own travails as a gambling addict. Also starring Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino, Morris Carnovsky and Jacqueline Brooks. The supporting cast seems to include every 70s character actor you can think of: Steven Keats, M. Emmet Walsh, Burt Young, Vic Tayback. James Woods, and Stuart Margolin.

Imprint’s Blu-ray transfer is quite obviously not restored (debris and artifacts tell the tale), but image quality, detail and color saturation is still superior to the Paramount DVD released in 2017. Extras include an insightful commentary by author and critic Matthew Asprey Gear, a video essay by Chris O’Neill, an archival interview with Reisz, and more.

Imprint Films is a new outfit out of Australia specializing in reissuing hard-to-find and out-of-print films. Be advised, their discs are region ‘B’ locked; so they require an all-region Blu-ray player (prices on all-region players have dropped considerably in recent years; worth the investment for deep-catalog film buffs). While many of their titles cross over with domestic reissue specialists like Criterion, Shout! Factory and KL Studio Classics, there is always the odd coveted obscurity that falls through the cracks (e.g. …like The Gambler).

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2021

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2021)

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‘Tis the season for the obligatory year-end roundups, so for your consideration (or condemnation) here are my top 10 picks out of the 50+ first-run films I reviewed in 2021:

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Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road – It has been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. Brent Wilson’s documentary borrows the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” concept, following Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine and Brian Wilson as they cruise around L.A., listening to Beach Boys tunes. Fine gently prompts Wilson to reminisce about the personal significance of various stops along the way. Most locales prompt fond memories; others clearly bring Wilson’s psyche back to those darker places he’d sooner forget. A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait.

(Full review )

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Fire Music – Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, director and co-writer Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s unravels a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked an amazingly rich and creative period for the genre. Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that has erased the contributions of the profiled artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping that enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.

(Full review )

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Heist of the Century – A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote.

(Full review )

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Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time – Director Robert Weide (best known as a director and producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm) offers an apologia in his 40 years in-the-making portrait of literary giant Kurt Vonnegut for being “one of those directors” who interjects himself; to his credit he stays fairly unobtrusive (over the decades filmmaker and subject developed a genuine father and son closeness until Vonnegut’s death in 2007). Still, this is no hagiography; Weide doesn’t sugarcoat the bad patches nor the darker sides of Vonnegut’s personality. An intimate, inspiring, funny and deeply moving portrait of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Weide’s film beautifully illustrates how loss and trauma can be spun into gold by the alchemy of an inventive imagination.

(Full review )

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The Last Film Show – Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows are obvious touchstones, but Nalin puts his own stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a poetic love letter to the movies.

(Full review )

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The Paper Tigers – It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s dramedy wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but was shot in Seattle. Tran subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining The Karate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in his tale of three former teenage kung fu champions, now riddled with the baggage and infirmities of middle age. What separates this from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, intelligent dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still lots of fight scenes, expertly choreographed and exciting to watch. I hope this little gem finds a wider audience.

(Full review )

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The Pebble and the Boy – 19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent demise. John not only inherits his father’s house, but his Lambretta scooter, bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Initially, John puts it up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter dad’s ashes in the sea. Chris Green’s comedy-drama is an entertaining road movie; a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth, in the manner he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor.

(Full review )

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Surge – It is clear from the outset that Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw), the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s unsettling yet curiously liberating drama would feel better if he could just …SCREAM. And once that dam bursts, Joseph’s frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting. I know what you’re thinking…but while you may think you know where things are headed, this unique film confounds expectations at every turn.

(Full review )

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Waikiki – This shattering psychological drama (written, directed, produced, and edited by Christopher Kahunahana) is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in a bravura performance) who is at a crossroads in her life. She suffers PTSD from an abusive relationship. She is temporarily homeless and living in her van. She juggles several part-time jobs, including bar tending and teaching hula. One night, upset and distracted following an altercation with her ex, she hits a homeless man with her van. From this point onward the film takes a tonal shift that demands your complete and undivided attention.

(Full review)

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Whelm – Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, writer-director Skyler Lawson’s debut feature centers on two brothers: Reed (Dylan Grunn) and August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. Desperate for money, the siblings get in over their heads with a suave, charismatic but felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). Equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy. A handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. The film evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

(Full review )

Honorable mentions…

 

Beans

The Beatles: Get Back

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James

Kubrick by Kubrick

Larry Flynt for President

When Hitler Stole White Rabbit

Whirlybird

White Riot

Wild Men

Zappa

…and just for giggles

Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 15 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

Where the wild things are: Surge (***½) & I’m an Electric Lampshade (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2021)

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Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

– from A Thousand Clowns, screenplay by Herb Gardner

 

Jonathan Lute: [after Quint has terrifyingly smashed up his entire office with an axe]

Andrew, darling, you’re always threatening to resign…

– from I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, screenplay by Peter Draper

 

Johnny: All right, listen. Does anybody mind if I scream here? Is that okay with you all? Cause I’d feel better for it. It won’t take long.

– from Naked, screenplay by Mike Leigh

 

It is clear from the outset that Joseph, the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s deeply unsettling yet curiously liberating drama Surge, would feel better for it if he could just …SCREAM.

As he wends through a busy Stansted Airport terminal to his gate security job, Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw) displays all the tell-tale signs of a ticking time bomb. He’s relatively young but looks haggard beyond his thirty-something years. He’s twitchy and furtive, with a thousand-yard stare that suggests his soul vacated his body some time ago.

After a dreary shift patting down and scanning an endless parade of travelers, Joseph commutes back to his low-rent London flat, where he plops into his armchair, bathed in the sickly light of a droning TV while wolfing a bland microwaved dinner. He has odd eating tics; when he puts a fork in his mouth he reflexively chomps down as if attempting to bite it in half, and when he takes a drink, he looks as though he’s trying to chew on the glass.

He seems …tense.

Something has got to give, and the trigger is a belated birthday dinner with his elderly parents.  He appears to have a strained relationship with his cold and gruff father (Ian Gelder). His mother (Ellie Haddington, who stole the show in the recent 4-part PBS Mystery! miniseries Guilt) is more empathetic, but also shows signs of someone who has suffered years of bullying (verbal, emotional…or worse). After a joyless repast, mum serves the cake, and as dad continues to glower and scowl, Joseph finally breaks-literally.

“Don’t you get blood on my carpets!” mum screeches in shock and confusion as Joseph flees after finally succeeding in chewing through the glass (hey…practice makes perfect).

A warning-if (like me) you are prone to anxiety attacks, the ensuing 2/3 of the film has the *potential* to trigger one (telling myself “It’s only a movie” kept me grounded). Put another way, Joseph’s subsequent frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting.

While Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones’ screenplay does toy with sociopolitical tropes and character motivations that cross over with Taxi Driver, Naked, Falling Down, and the more recent Joker, Surge is anything but a rote retread of the well-trod “disenfranchised white male going off the deep end” narrative. I found it closer in spirit to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, a film that, while equally unsettling, confounds your expectations at every turn.

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I’m an Electric Lampshade could be viewed as a kinder, gentler Surge, or perhaps a variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Billed as a “documentary-narrative hybrid”, writer-director John Clayton-Doyle’s film centers on a quiet, straight-arrow corporate accountant (Doug McCorkle) who surprises his longtime co-workers by using his retirement party to “come out” as an aspiring pop star. So much for golfing and fishing…

Doug brings down the house with a professionally choreographed and produced video featuring him singing and dancing. Actually, the latter part is perhaps best described as “undulating”, as Doug undulates in that oddly earnest yet arrhythmic manner that 60-year-old men tend to undulate on the dance floor at weddings and bar mitzvahs (that’s why I don’t dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs these days…as a public service).

A co-worker offers Doug a business card for a “finishing school for performers” in the Philippines, adding that if he is serious about giving this pop star thing a go, he should check it out. Casting his fate to the wind, and with the full blessing of his wife (Regina McCorkle) Doug embarks to the Philippines to pursue his dream. What his co-worker failed to mention was that all the students are drag queens (but Doug is cool with that).

There’s not much more to the narrative; Doug hangs out in the Philippines for a spell, gets his first professional singing and dancing gig doing a TV commercial for a Filipino yogurt company, and then heads back to the States to prepare for his concert debut in Mexico. The concert takes up the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film (it feels like 3 hours).

It’s all good-natured enough I suppose, but unfortunately, our aspiring “electric lampshade” McCorkle has the charisma of a night light. And the original music (which is critical, as it runs through most of the film) is duller than dishwater (generic EDM). I have nothing against pursuing one’s dreams …but sitting through this could be a nightmare for some viewers.

Happy Marxist Day: The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

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“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”

– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:

Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.

Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:

Oh, dear.

(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)

Is social justice the same as socialism?

Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”

Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.

Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.

Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle

So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?

Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?

In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:

…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.

Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.

However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).

In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).

Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.

Sing us out, Billy Bragg…

War(s) on Terror: 20 years and 10 films later

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2021)

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Now a note to the President, and the Government, and the judges of this place
We’re still waitin’ for you to bring our troops home, clean up that mess you made
‘Cause it smells of blood and money across the Iraqi land
But its so easy here to blind us with your united we stand

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

With the 20th anniversary of September 11th looming amid the political fireworks surrounding America’s ongoing “final” troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more than enough analyses (scholarly or otherwise) regarding the whys and wherefores of America’s wars on terror to go around lately, so I won’t add to the din. Besides-that’s above my pay grade. I’m just “the movie guy” around these parts.

I was perusing my 15 years of reviews and was surprised at the number of documentaries and feature films related to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have covered. Collectively, these films not only paint a broad canvas of these endless wars themselves, but put the full spectrum of humanity on display, from “the better angels of our nature” to the absolute worst (mostly the worst).

So in lieu of a 3,000-word dissertation, I’ve culled 9 films from my archives that perhaps best represent what’s gone down “over there” (and on the home front) over the last 20 years since the World Trade Center towers fell, and one film that serves as a preface. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call this a “top 10” list, so let’s just call it, “food for thought”.

Pray for peace.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the snappy dialog for director Mike Nichols’ political satire. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? While a (mostly) true story, it plays like a fairy tale now; although in view of recent events we know the Afghan people didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. (Full review)

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Fair Game – Doug Liman’s slightly uneven 2010 dramatization of the “Plame affair” and the part it played in the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco may hold more relevance now, with the benefit of hindsight. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two memoirs, The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the opening scenes, which give the impression you may be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be speculative in nature. Due to the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

However, the most important part of the couple’s story was the political fallout that transpired once Valerie was “outed” by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Liman wisely shifts the focus to depicting how Wilson and Plame weathered this storm together, and ultimately stood up to the Bush-Cheney juggernaut of “alternative facts” that helped sell the American public on Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full review)

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The Kill Team – In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. For as long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. (Full review)

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The Messenger – I think this is the film that comes closest to getting the harrowing national nightmare of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “right”. Infused with sharp writing, smart direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that sneaks up and really gets inside you, haunting you long after the credits roll.

First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson are outstanding. I think this film is to the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire what The Deer Hunter was to Vietnam. It’s that good…and just as devastating. (Full review)

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Son of Babylon – This heartbreaking Iraqi drama from 2010 is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – I once saw a fascinating TV documentary called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook (discovered decades after the war) that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in this documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us? A disturbing, yet compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review)

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Stop/Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio.

A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran. Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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W – No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once you watch his 2008 take on the life and times of George W. Bush (uncannily played by Josh Brolin), I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the end of his second term.

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He caught some flak for dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some took umbrage at another one of the underlying themes in Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me. (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

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Zero Dark Thirty – “Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

But that’s just me. Perhaps the film is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release back in 2013 would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice I said “nearly”. But if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting. The best I can do is arm you with those caveats; so you will have to judge for yourself. (Full review)

…and one more thing

2 weeks ago I posted a review of Mariam Ghani’s new documentary What We Left Unfinished, which takes a rare look at the Afghan film industry, and how a group of filmmakers kept it flourishing during Afghanistan’s Communist era (1978 to 1991). Earlier this week, it was announced that tickets purchased via Dekanalog Eventive will go to the Emergency Funds For Afghan Artists Go Fund Me organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. You will find more detailed information and latest updates here.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mirror (The Criterion Collection)

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

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

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

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