Category Archives: Dramedy

You will go to the moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2019)

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50 years today, on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’re suffering from tribute fatigue; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. And yes, I’m aware that while we figured out how to put a man on the moon, your cell phone service still sucks; it has been duly noted.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me. Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

It is in this spirit that I have curated a NASA film festival for you. In alphabetical order:

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary (currently in theaters and airing on CNN) was a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller, who also produced and edited. Miller had access to a trove of previously unreleased 70mm footage from Apollo 11’s launch and recovery, which he and his production team was able to seamlessly integrate with archival 35mm and 16mm footage, as well as photos and CCTV. All audio and visual elements were digitally restored, and Miller put it together in such a way that it flows like a narrative film (i.e., no new voice-over narration or present-day talking heads intrude). The result is impressive. I’ve only seen it on cable, but I could imagine it is spectacular in IMAX. If you missed it, good news-it airs again tonight on CNN at 6pm and 8pm (PST).

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Apollo 13– While overly formal at times, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. You get a sense of the claustrophobic tension the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have good chemistry as crewmates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, and Ed Harris was born to portray Ground Control’s flight director, Gene Kranz.

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The Dish– This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia is based on the true story behind one of the crucial 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 Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I highly recommend: The Castle (1997).

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The Farthest–  Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made 2017 documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

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For All Mankind– Former astronaut Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary was culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts over a period of years. Don’t expect standard exposition; this is simply a montage of (literally) out-of-this-world imagery with anecdotal and philosophical musings provided by the astronauts. Brian Eno composed the ambient soundtrack. A mesmerizing and unique tone poem in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary (similar to For All Mankind) is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days…a reason to take pride in being an American.

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The Right Stuff– Director and writer Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring drama about NASA’s Mercury program. Considering the film was modestly budgeted (by today’s standards), it has quite an expansive scope. The rich characterizations also make it an intimate story, beautifully acted by a dream cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out…the barbershop space rock stylings of Moxy Fruvous.

SIFF 2019: Go Back to China (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Writer-director Emily Ting’s family dramedy/fish-out-of-water story concerns a young woman (Anna Akana) living high off her trust fund in L.A. who gets cut off by her prosperous dad in China. If she wants back on the gravy train, he demands she must first come back to China for a year to work at his toy factory. Not groundbreaking-but all-in-all it’s an amiable, audience-pleasing charmer.

SIFF 2019: International Falls (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is not pretty.” He was being facetious; but there is a dark side to the business of funny (everybody loves a clown, but nobody wants to take one home-if you know what I’m saying). Punchline meets Fargo in this tragicomic love story directed by Amber McGinnis and written by playwright/comedian Thomas Ward.

A disenchanted, middle-aged Minnesota mom (Rachael Harris) with a crap job and crappier marriage finds her only solace in attending weekly comedy shows at a local hotel lounge and toying with the idea of one day going into stand-up herself. One night, she hooks up with a cynical road comic (Rob Huebel) who seems to have lost his, how do you Americans say…joie da vivre? The pair realize they might have something special going on between them. Problem is, she’s married, and he’s just there for the week. Funny and sobering, with fine performances by Harris and Huebel (both real-life comics).

SIFF 2019: Emma Peeters (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Maybe it’s coincidence, but what with the popularity of the HBO series Barry and this new black comedy from Belgian-American writer-director Nicole Palo, it appears acting class satires with dark undercurrents are now a thing.

As she careens toward her 35th birthday, wannabe thespian Emma (Monia Chakri, in a winning performance) decides that she’s had it with failed auditions and slogging through a humiliating day job. She’s convinced herself that 35 is the “expiry” date for actresses anyway. So, she prepares for a major change…into the afterlife.

Unexpectedly lightened by her decision, she cheerfully begins to check off her bucket list, giving away possessions, and making her own funeral arrangements. However, when she develops an unforeseen relationship with a lonely young funeral director, her future is uncertain, and the end may not be near. A funny-sad romantic romp in the vein of Harold and Maude.

SIFF 2019: Wild Rose (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Yes, it’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. Bonus…there’s a cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

Blu-ray reissue: Little Murders ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Little Murders – Indicator Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This dark, dark comedy from 1971 is one of my all-time favorite films. It was directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own self-described “post-assassination play” (referring to the then-relatively recent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy). That said, it is not wholly political; but it is sociopolitical (I see it as the pre-cursor to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network).

Elliot Gould is at the peak of his Elliot Gould-ness as a nihilistic (and seemingly brain-dead) free-lance photographer who is essentially browbeaten into a love affair with an effervescent sunny side-up young woman (Marcia Rodd) who is bound and determined to snap him out of his torpor. The story follows the travails of this oil and water couple as they slog through a dystopian New York City chock full o’ nuts, urban blight, indifference and random shocking acts of senseless violence (you know…New York City in the 70s).

There are so many memorable vignettes, and nearly every cast member gets a Howard Beale-worthy monologue on how fucked-up American society is (and remember…this was 1971). Disturbingly, it remains relevant as ever. But it is very funny. No, seriously. The cast includes Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi (who has the best monolog) and Donald Sutherland. Arkin is a riot as a homicide investigator.

Indicator’s limited-edition Blu-ray features a gorgeous high-definition remaster (please note that it is a Region ‘B’ locked disc that requires a multi-region player). A plethora of extras includes a 2004 audio commentary with Gould and Feiffer, an alternate commentary track from 2018 by film journalist Samm Deighan, new and archival featurettes, interviews, and critical re-appraisals, a 40-page booklet of essays, and more.

SIFF 2018: Little Tito and the Aliens ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss.

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

Blu-ray reissue: Tampopo ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Tampopo – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl.

A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love. Criterion’s edition features a nicely restored print and a generous helping of extras, including Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s 1962 debut short film.

One and-a-half bar mitzvahs and a wedding: The Women’s Balcony (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2017)

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In his 2009 Guardian piece “Does Judaism discriminate against women?” Dan Rickman writes:

There is however, a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all Orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought: a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say everyday thanks a God “who has not made me a woman”. […]

There are many couples where the husband is involved and the woman is estranged. What drives this is the dissonance between women’s lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in traditional Jewish life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male) rabbis.

Oy. So that begs an obvious question: Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist? Funnily enough, that is the name of a 2014 Telegraph article by Emma Barnett (an Orthodox Jew by upbringing and a feminist), who writes:

You see as a fully paid up feminist, I demand and expect total equality in my secular life and yet some would view what I accept as normal in my religious Jewish world, as anything but equal. Although believe me, no women in my personal Jewish life feel oppressed; if anything, they are in total control. […]

In the secular world, common sense must be the order of the day. It isn’t reasonable not to have women occupying the same roles as men and vice versa. But in a religious sphere, where faith is the binding force of a group of people, rationale has less sway or place. If you started applying logic to the beliefs held in most faiths, things would start to fall apart pretty quickly at the seams. […]

Male-led religions present a big dilemma to feminists in the modern world. And yes, on this topic, I am a full fat hypocrite. But as they say, faith begins often where logic ends.

This dilemma lies at the heart of a warm, witty and wise new Israeli dramedy called The Women’s Balcony, from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.

The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. As the film opens, a small but lively and close-knit congregation, led by venerable Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) gather at their modest synagogue for a bar-mitzvah.

Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous celebration takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses mid-ceremony. Luckily, all survive, but sadly, the rabbi’s wife sustains serious injuries that require indefinite round-the-clock hospital care. The aging Rabbi Menashe, not in the best health himself, has a nervous breakdown.

This leaves the congregation with two major deficits; no place to worship until repairs can be facilitated, and no spiritual leader at the helm until the rabbi (hopefully) recovers from his debilitating mental trauma. A few days after the accident, several of the men from the congregation are discussing the future of the synagogue and decide to pray on it.

However, they realize that they are a few bodies short of a minyan (a quorum of 10), which they will need in order to conduct a service. They ask a young man who passes by.

As fate would have it, he happens to be a rabbi, who is more than happy to fetch some of his students and shore up the minyan. The men instantly take to the charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who quite quickly ingratiates himself as the “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly, perhaps, for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hastily remodeled synagogue eschews the open balcony model for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services.

The more the charming but duplicitous Rabbi David’s ultra-orthodox slip begins to show, the less enthralled are the women, who eventually find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. Still, they must step lightly; with marriages and long-time friendships on the rocks (much less the future of their once harmonious congregation) there’s much at stake.

This formidable coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts (Israeli comedian Orna Banai, in her first major screen role; popular Israeli singer Einat Sarouf, making her film debut; acclaimed Moroccan-born actress Evelin Hagoel; actress-comedian Yafit Asulin) who deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.

How this extended family resolves their fractious row is relayed with compassion and astute observation, steeped in what I once described in a review as “…a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).” That said (if I may re-appropriate a classic advertising slogan) “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” or in this case, to love Ben-Shimon and Nehama’s real Jewish wryness.