Category Archives: Drama

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

SIFF 2021: Topside (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

SIFF 2021: Waikiki (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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Trouble in paradise. This intense, shattering psychological drama is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in an extraordinary 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 bartending 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 the film makes a tonal shift that demands your total attention. A tour-de-force for Christopher Kahunahana, who served as writer, producer, director, and editor.

SIFF 2021: Final Exam (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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This character study is about a selfless part-time teacher tenuously close to a nervous breakdown. Between his school duties, taking care of his elderly mother and constantly having to bail his ne’er do-well brother out of trouble, he has his hands full. Deliberately paced; impatient viewers should be advised this one is a slow boiler , but the denouement packs quite an emotional wallop for those who don’t mind the wait. Taiwanese director Chen-ti Kuo co-wrote her screenplay with Joanna Wang.

R.I.P. George Segal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 27, 2021)

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I was saddened to learn of George Segal’s passing earlier this week. I confess up front that I have zero awareness of his latter-career television work; but then again, I haven’t followed any network sitcoms with much interest since Seinfeld went off the air in 1998.

For me Segal’s visage will be forever associated with a streak of memorable film roles from the mid-60s through the late 70s (perusing his credits on the Internet Movie Database, I realized that apart from David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy Flirting with Disaster I have not seen any of Segal’s big screen work beyond Lost and Found (Melvin Frank’s disappointing 1979 sequel to his own 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class).

I will remember him for his masterful comic timing (he was the king of the reaction shot) but he also had great drama chops. He was also a decent banjo player (I searched in earnest for any instance where he may have jammed with Steve Martin…but alas, if it did happen, there is no extant footage). Here are my top 10 George Segal recommendations:

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Bye Bye Braverman – Viewer caution: This film contains graphic depictions of extreme Jewishness (I’m allowed to say that…I’ve lived it). A lesser-known gem from Sidney Lumet, this 1968 comedy-drama follows the escapades of four Manhattan intellectuals (Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Warden and Sorrell Booke) who pile into a red Beetle and spend a Sunday afternoon schlepping around Brooklyn searching for the funeral of a mutual friend who dropped dead following a coronary. Much middle-age angst ensues.

Episodic but bolstered by wonderful performances and several memorable scenes. My favorite involves a fender-bender with the great Godfrey Cambridge, playing a fast-talking cabbie who has converted to Judaism. Another great segment features Alan King as a rabbi giving an off-the wall eulogy. A scene where Segal delivers a soliloquy about modern society while strolling through a vast cemetery will now have added poignancy.

The screenplay was adapted from Wallace Markfield’s novel by Herb Sargent, who later become a top writer for Saturday Night Live from 1975-1995. Also in the cast: Phyllis Newman, Zohra Lampert and Jessica Walter (who also passed away this week, sadly).

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California Split – While it has its share of protracted scenes and an unhurried, naturalistic rhythm you expect from Robert Altman, I think this 1974 comedy-drama is the director’s tightest, most economical film; I would even venture it’s damn near perfect.

A pro gambler (Elliot Gould) and a compulsive gambler with a straight day job (Segal) bond after getting roughed up and robbed by a sore loser and his pals in a poker parlor parking lot. Gould invites Segal to sleep over at his place, a house he shares with two self-employed sex workers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). The men become gambling buddies. Soon they are mutual enablers, spiraling down the rabbit hole of their addiction.

The film doubles as a beautifully acted character study and a fascinating, documentary-like dive into the myopic, almost subterranean subculture of the degenerate gambler. As Roger Ebert put it so beautifully in his original review of the film: “This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it’s always five in the morning in a second-rate casino.” Perceptive screenplay by actor Joseph Walsh, who also has a great cameo as a menacing loan shark.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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LovingAmerican Beauty meets The Prisoner of Second Avenue in this 1970 sleeper, directed by the eclectic Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man, Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Segal is in his element as a freelance commercial illustrator and suburban dad on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dissatisfied with his own work, on the rocks with both his wife (Eva Marie Saint) and his Manhattan mistress (Janis Young), he’s fighting an existential uphill battle trying to keep everyone in his life happy.

The story builds slowly, culminating in a near-classic party scene up there with the one in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. Patient viewers will notice the film is well constructed and despite being made 50 years ago, still has much to say about modern manners and mores (all in the space of 90 minutes). The intelligent screenplay was adapted from J.M. Ryan’s novel by Don Devlin.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous sex worker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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The Terminal Man – Paging Dr. Jekyll! Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks.

Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Michael Crichton’s novel.

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A Touch of Class – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee who, following two chance encounters in London, realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

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Where’s Poppa? – If you are easily offended, do not go anywhere near this film. But if you believe nothing is sacred in comedy and enjoy laughing so hard that you plotz-see it.

Where do I start? Carl Reiner’s 1970 black comedy (adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel) concerns a New York City attorney (Segal) who lives in a cramped apartment with his senile mother (Ruth Gordon). Honoring a deathbed promise to his dearly departed poppa, Segal takes care of his mother (well, as best he can). She is a…handful.

The beleaguered Segal’s day begins with prepping his mother’s preferred breakfast of 6 orange slices and a heaping bowl of Pepsi and Lucky Charms (interestingly, in California Split Segal himself is served a breakfast of beer and Fruit Loops by the two sex workers).

His businessman brother (Ron Leibman) is too “busy” to help, so Segal must hire nurses to take care of ma while he’s at work. Unfortunately, she has a habit of driving them away with her over-the-top behavior. When Segal falls head-over-heels in love with the latest hire (Trish Van Devere, in a priceless performance), his thoughts about how he’s going to “take care” of ma and keep this blossoming romance abloom become…darker.

Segal was rarely so hilariously exasperated as he gets here, it’s Gordon’s best (and most outrageous) comic performance, and the supporting cast (which includes Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino and Garrett Morris) is aces. Again, this film is not for all tastes (it would never get green-lighted now) …but rates as one of my all-time favorite comedies.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Here are some additional George Segal films worth a look:

King Rat (1965; WW2 drama, dir. Bryan Forbes)

The Quiller Memorandum (1966; Cold War spy thriller, dir. Michael Anderson)

Blume in Love (1973; romantic comedy-drama, dir. Paul Mazursky)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976; western comedy, dir. Melvin Frank)

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977; crime caper/social satire, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978; comedy-mystery, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Flirting with Disaster (1996; comedy, dir. David O. Russell)

 

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 13, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem.

It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally and socially stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comedian in his home country) gives an astonishing performance.

I like the way the film continually challenges expectations, delivering an insightful glimpse at the human condition every bit as affecting and profound as Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Miller’s Crossing– This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen. The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (who is the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace by playing both sides against the middle. This form of diplomacy does carry a certain degree of personal risk (don’t try this at home).

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of twisty performances, stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity.

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

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

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

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

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

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his 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth.

After his daughter is nearly swept away by the sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

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

Paging Upton Sinclair: Mank (***½) & Martin Eden (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2021)

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Herman J. Mankiewicz: Irving [Thalberg], you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty. […]

Mankiewicz [In a later scene, referring to his dinner host William Randolph Hearst] …he’s EXACTLY what our Don used to be! An idealist, ya get it? And not only that, his nemesis [gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair] is the same guy who once predicted that our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. [Pointing at fellow dinner guest Louis B. Mayer] Assisted by his faithful Sancho.

from Mank, screenplay by Jack Fincher

Russ Brissenden: I’m warning you, Martin…don’t waste time. How many people do you see starve to death or go to jail because they are nothing else but wretches, stupid and ignorant slaves? Fight for them, Martin. Fight for socialism.

Martin Eden: You and I have nothing to do with socialists! Yet you insist on spending time with them!

Russ Brissenden: Socialism is inevitable. The slaves have now become too many. Anything is preferable to the pigs that govern now. Socialism will give a sense to your writing, Martin. It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.

Martin Eden: What disappointment? [End scene]

– from Martin Eden, screenplay by Maurizio Brariucci & Pietro Marcello

It is tempting to suggest that, aside from the fact that David Fincher’s Mank and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden are films about writers (the former a real-life figure and the latter a fictional character), they are also both “about” socialism. But they are not really, at least not in any didactic way. I will venture to suggest that they do merge in a tangential way, with a minor fender-bender at the intersection of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

I came to this ‘epiphany’ in my usual bumbling fashion. Being a lazy bastard, I have been putting off writing a review of Mank (which has been available on Netflix since early December). This time of year, less screener links come my way than usual (even publicists need a holiday break, I suppose), so with nothing new to cover this week I went for the low-hanging fruit, planning to devote this post to Mank. Murphy’s Law being what it is, I was offered a crack at Martin Eden, a film I had already been intrigued to see.

Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s eponymous novel. I admit I have never read it, which may have worked in my favor, as I went into it with no expectations and an open mind. Good thing too, as I gather that some London purists are upset that the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci transposed a tale originally set in early 1900s America to an unspecified (mid to latter?) 20th-Century period in Italy, chockablock with anachronisms.

When we are introduced to the strapping Martin (Luca Marinelli) he’s a drunken sailor pulling an all-night pub crawl, boning and grogging his way down the waterfront and sleeping it off al fresco. When he awakens, he espies a slightly built young man getting bullied by a goon and springs to his rescue. The grateful Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) invites Martin to have breakfast with his family, who turn out to be well to-do. This is where Martin meets Arturo’s pretty sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) who will be the love of his life.

The directionless (and penniless) Martin is enthralled and fascinated not only by Elena’s loveliness, but her education and refinement. Intuiting that his uneducated proletarian upbringing puts him out of her league, he decides then and there to become a man of letters, come hell or high water. Initially, Elena’s interest does not lean toward amour, but she is not immune to Martin’s innate charm. She also senses his natural intelligence; so, she begins to tutor him, encouraging him to expand his intellect (not unlike My Fair Lady, except in this scenario…Elena is Professor Higgins, and Martin is Eliza Doolittle).

Martin begins to write in earnest. At a soiree hosted by Elena’s family, Martin recites one of his poems, to polite applause. One of the guests is Russ Brissenden, an older gentleman of mysterious means. The straight-talking Brissenden tells Martin his poem had substance and was not appreciated by the bourgeoisie guests. Brissenden, a Socialist and writer himself, becomes a mentor, encouraging Martin to write about what he knows.

Eventually Martin and Elena’s relationship does develop into full-blown romance. However, when Martin tells her that he has decided to pursue writing as a living, he is puzzled and hurt when she tells him that the subjects that he chooses to write about are too “raw” and “real” and do not offer enough “hope” to people. She implies that if he does not find a trade to fall back on, she is afraid they will never be able to get married.

Martin goes to Brissenden for counseling. When Brissenden tells him that he needs to forget about pleasing Elena (bluntly referring to her as an “idiot”) and reset his priorities to focus solely on finding his voice as a writer, Martin sees red and physically attacks Brissenden. He immediately apologizes, as he now sees that Elena’s harsh appraisal of his work was not constructive criticism, so much as it was her outing herself as a classist.

In a narrative jump 2/3 of the way through, Martin has not only found his voice as a writer, essayist, and poet, but fame and fortune as such. He is also cynical, apolitical, and indifferent to success. He’s given most of his money away; mostly to those who helped him when he was struggling. At a public event, he sneeringly refers to himself as a “hoodlum and a sailor” to adoring fans. We get a sketch of Martin’s wilderness years between his breakup with Elena and achieving world acclaim, but with no explanation given for his apparent descent into a chronic state of existential malaise and self-loathing.

For the final third of the film, Martin tap-dances willy-nilly around the edges of the time-space continuum like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one scene, he watches a group of Fascist black shirts enjoying recreation at the beach. There are references to an imminent “war” involving Italy during what appears to be the late 70s…but then we see a vintage newsreel of a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. It is artfully constructed, which I suppose injects lyricism into Marcello’s film, but it somehow feels like window dressing.

Then again, if I may jump ahead and steal a line from Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.” On the plus side, despite its overreaching themes Martin Eden is a pleasing throwback to class struggle dramas from the 60s and 70s like Visconti’s The Leopard and Bertolucci’s 1900.

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Regarding Upton Sinclair. He and Jack London were not only contemporaries, but mutual admirers of each other’s writings. Before he wrote The Jungle, the 1906 novel that put him on the map, Sinclair (who had over 90 books to his credit by his death in 1968 at the age of 90) is said to have been greatly influenced by People of the Abyss, London’s 1903 book about the slums of London’s East End. And here’s what London said of The Jungle:

“Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”

That sounds awfully close to the kind of book that the (fictional) Socialist Russ Brissenden would love to see his (fictional) protégé Martin Eden write. Not a stretch, considering London was a Socialist. In fact, he and Sinclair were charter members of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Founded in 1905, the I.S.S. had a stated purpose to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.”

But what’s most interesting about Martin Eden (commonly assumed to be a semi-autobiographical work), is that its protagonist rejects Socialism outright. According to Wiki, in the copy of the novel which he inscribed for Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” And so it goes.

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For a guy who has been dead for 53 years, Upton Sinclair sure gets around a lot these days. Admittedly he has but a spectral “presence” in the margins of Martin Eden (as I explained above) but he gets a cameo and maybe a quarter-page of dialog in David Fincher’s Mank. Well, “he” as in a reasonable facsimile, in the person of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye portrays Sinclair delivering a speech in his iteration as a politician, when he ran for Governor of California in 1934 (he ran as a Democrat and lost the race).

However, the focus of David Fincher’s Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz – Hollywood screenwriter, inveterate gambler, world-class inebriate, and born tummler. More specifically, it is a (more-or-less accurate) chronicle of the part he played in the creation of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Back in 2007, I published a review of a film wherein I innocuously referenced to The Princess Bride as “Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.” At the time, Hullabaloo readers were able to comment on posts. Man, did I ever release the Kraken with that one. To say that I was beset upon is understatement. “ROB REINER’S The Princess Bride?! Ingrate! Philistine! Aren’t you aware that William Goldman wrote the screenplay?!” Yes, I was.

This sparked a lively discussion on “whose” film it was. Call me madcap, but I’m sure I’ve read and heard the phrase “Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause” many more times than the phrase “Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause” (as in never!). Of course I realize there’s no film without a screenwriter. And I’m also aware there are films written and directed by the same person. I just never got the memo about these shorthand “rules”.

So is it “Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane”? Or is it “Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane”?

In his ambitious attempt to answer that million-dollar question in just over two hours, Fincher, armed with a sharp and literate screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003; I’d hazard that this project was in development for a spell) has layered his biopic with enough Hollywood meta to make even Quentin Tarantino plotz.

The story opens in 1940, by which time Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has burned his bridges in Tinseltown, thanks to his sharp tongue and love of the bottle. Despite this (or perhaps he is attracted by Mank’s budget-friendly mix of writing prowess and financial desperation), Welles (Tom Burke) recruits him to write a screenplay for his first film. Welles, with a commanding and formidable presence that belied his 24 years, was a hard man to say “no” to. He had already made a splash in radio and theater and had just signed an unprecedented contract with RKO which gave him full creative control of his projects.

Mank is convalescing from an auto accident that has left him bedridden with a broken leg. Welles has set him up at an isolated ranch house in Victorville, California, where Mank dictates his screenplay to his British secretary (Lily Collins). In a slightly cruel but pragmatic move, Wells has also provided Mank with a cabinet full of liquor (surreptitiously laced with Seconal) at the foot of the bed…out of reach. This dangles a carrot for motivation to heal up and focus on writing, but also (sort of) guarantees rationing.

Welles enlists his producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to make house calls to keep tabs on Mank’s progress with the script (which eventually tops 300 pages, much to Houseman’s chagrin). As Mank toils on his tome, flashbacks to the 1930s are cleverly interwoven to tell both the story of Mank’s mercurial career in the Hollywood studio system, as well as illustrate how his equally mercurial acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) provided the grist for creating the characters in Citizen Kane. (in the event Citizen Kane remains unchecked on your bucket list, that would be the one where “Charles Foster Kane” unquestionably rhymes with “William Randolph Hearst”).

Film buffs who have given Citizen Kane a spin will enjoy playing “spot the visual quote”, as Fincher has festooned them throughout (nice B&W photography by Erik Messerschmidt adds to the verisimilitude). The elder Fincher’s script gives the characters much to chew on, particularly Oldman, who merrily fires off Mank’s droll barbs with deadly accuracy. Fine work by a large cast that includes Ferdinand Kingsley (as Irving Thalberg), Arless Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (as Mank’s brother Joseph) and Tuppence Middleton playing Mank’s long-suffering but devoted wife Sara.

As far as resolving “whose” film Citizen Kane is…here’s one take, from a recent BFI essay by the always insightful Farran Smith Nehme (who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren):

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous.

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just as Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Rule of thumb? Give credit where credit is due…when practical. Welles summed it up best when he said: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”

If you really must pry: Top 10 Films of 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2020)

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As the year closes, it’s time to pick the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2020. In a “normal” year, I usually watch and review between 50 and 60 first-run features and documentaries. This year, the tally was…substantially lower. 2020 was challenging for a movie critic (well…at least speaking for myself, as a low-rung player). Anyway (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Boogie Nights), that’s an “M.P.” (My Problem), not a “Y.P.” (Your Problem). Per usual my picks are listed alphabetically, not by rank.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Anyone who has ever spent a few hours down the pub knows there are as many descriptive terms for “drunks” as the Inuits have for “snow” . Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…et.al. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in this extraordinary (and controversial) genre-defying Sundance hit.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. (Full review)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – So how did the world become (to quote from one of Paddy Cheyefsky’s classic monologues in Network) “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

Justin Pemberton’s timely documentary (based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty) tackles those kind of questions. Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. (Full review)

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Desert One – In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back 53 American citizens held hostage in Iran. It did not end well. The failed mission also likely ended Carter’s already waning chances of winning a second term as President.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Carter. An eye-opening documentary. (Full review)

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Love Spreads – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, and Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection) is right in that wheelhouse. “Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs.

The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat). Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, (with a dash of Love and Mercy), bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and some catchy original songs. (Full review)

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Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always – Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s timely drama centers on 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) , a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder). They both work part-time as grocery clerks in rural Pennsylvania (a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided). After a decidedly unhelpful visit to her local “crisis pregnancy center” and a harrowing failed attempt to self-induce an abortion, Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds and hop a bus to New York City.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. She does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate. This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be; it is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.(Full review)

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Pacified – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil make a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection). A cross between The King of New York and City of God, it takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians. (Full review)

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76 Days – Filmed during the early days of the Coronavirus epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, this remarkable documentary was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous”.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months (it was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists and their small camera crews). Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach.

I know it seems perverse to include this in my top 10 for a year where movies serve as one of the few respites from the real-life horror of the pandemic; nonetheless, 76 Days must be acknowledged as a timely, humanistic, and essential document. (Full review)

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Tommaso – Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s drama is the latest descendant of Fellini’s ; although it offers a less fanciful and more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is no exception.

He is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife and 3 year-old daughter. At first glance, he leads an idyllic existence. However, it soon becomes evident there is trouble in Paradise. Again, it’s familiar territory, but worth the the price of admission to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material. (Full review).

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

While the trial has been covered in  previous documentaries and feature films (like The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle – focusing on a clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants. While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before they were all  indicted together and prosecuted en masse as “conspirators”. (Full review)

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Weathering With You – Here’s a question somewhat unique to 2020: Do you remember the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I do. It was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film. Little did I suspect that it would come to hold such a special place in my memory…for reasons outside of the film itself. I’ll admit I had some problems with the narrative, which may bring into question why its in my top 10 . That said, I concluded my review thusly:

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

I have since seen it again, twice (I bought the Blu-ray). Like many of Shinkai’s films, it improves with subsequent viewings. Besides, there’s no law against modifying your initial impression of a movie. That’s my modified opinion, and I’m sticking to it. (Full review)

…and just for giggles

Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing film reviews here at Digby’s (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