Category Archives: Drug Culture

Blu-ray reissue: Touch of Evil (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Touch of Evil (Kino)

Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

I think I’ve quadruple-dipped by now on “definitive” editions of this film, but Kino’s 2022 reissue features the most crystalline transfer I’ve seen to date. The package includes new 4K restorations of the theatrical, preview, and ­­“reconstructed” cuts (the latter re-edited as close as possible to Welles’ original vision, based on his notes and studio memorandums). Each version includes audio commentary by film historians (two are new; others are ported over from previous editions).

SIFF 2022: Sweetheart Deal (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

Tribeca 2021: Creation Stories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19, 2021)

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Nick Moran’s manic, hyper-kinetic biopic about Creation Records founder Alan McGee (who spearheaded the Britpop explosion of the 1990s) plays like a mashup of 24-Hour Party People and Trainspotting. This is not surprising considering the screenplay is co-written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh (with Dean Cavanagh). The narrative is framed by McGee (Ewen Bremner) telling his life story to a journalist. Cue the flashbacks, starting with McGee’s modest early successes in the 80s with acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and culminating with his mentorship of Oasis in the mid-90s.

The film moves too quickly for its own good, giving you no real sense of who McGee is (apart from establishing that he is an “outsider”). Another major hurdle is Bremner, who remains the most unintelligible actor in the English-speaking world (even for a Scotsman). Subtitles really would have helped. As much as I dug Moran’s 2009 Joe Meek biopic Telstar, I am afraid this one is a letdown.

 

Tribeca 2021: Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19, 2021)

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It’s been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. After a 2-year streak of hit singles about sun, surf, cars and girls (beginning with the 1963 release of “Surfin’ U.S.A.”), Wilson hit a wall. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series).

Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most innovative work of his career (Pet Sounds, in 1966). Wilson’s roller coaster ride was only beginning, with a number of well-documented ups and downs (personal and professional); but his unique creative faculties remained intact. Considering what he has been through, it is amazing Wilson is even alive to tell the tale.

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 dark places he’d sooner forget. What keeps the film from feeling exploitative is the fact that Wilson demonstratively trusts Fine (they are longtime friends). A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait.

Tribeca 2021: Bitchin’-The Sound and Fury of Rick James (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19, 2021)

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They broke the mold when James Ambrose Johnson Jr. (aka Rick James) came into the world. In his documentary (headed for Showtime later this year), Sacha Jenkins wisely debunks the caricature popularized by Dave Chappelle (“I’m Rick JAMES, bitch!”) right off the bat, clearing the way for an honest, down-and-dirty portrait of the gifted (if maddeningly self-destructive) singer-songwriter-musician-producer (he died in 2004).

Viewers only familiar with his personae from the late 70s onward that yielded hits like “You & I”, “Mary Jane”, “Bustin’ Out”, and “Super-Freak” may be surprised to learn about his formative mid-60s Canadian period, when he hung with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and explored folk, psychedelia and hard rock (all of which he later incorporated into his unique brand of “punk-funk”). Slickly produced, fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing.

Babylon Berlin: Enfant Terrible (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2021)

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“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.”

― Rainer Werner Fassbinder

An oft-quoted Chinese philosopher once proffered “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. He could have been prophesying the short yet productive life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Over a 15-year period ending with his death in 1982 at age 37, the German playwright, director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc. churned out 40+ feature films, a couple dozen stage plays , two TV mini-series, and various video productions, radio plays and shorts.

As illustrated in a new biopic, he also snorted lots of coke, cruised a lot of rough trade, threw a lot of tantrums, and generally treated friends, lovers, and actors (frequently all one and the same) like shit. It could be argued he didn’t suffer for his art, so much as make those around him suffer for it. He was “the bad boy” of New German Cinema.

Hence the title of Oskar Roehler’s fitfully inspired Enfant Terrible, which is propelled by Oliver Masucci’s scenery-chewing turn as Fassbinder (a performance that vacillates between Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall and John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House).

After several years of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating theater productions, Fassbinder declares to his long-suffering collaborator Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) “Wherever you go is material that is about how people see their dreams and how their dreams get destroyed. The theater can’t do it. Only cinema can do it.” This launches a torrent of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating films.

Eventually critics and audiences warm to Fassbinder’s work, starting with his internationally acclaimed 1974 drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The narrative thread about Fassbinder’s relationship with leading man El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) provides Enfant Terrible with an emotional core it otherwise lacks (as nihilism  runs through much of Fassbinder’s work, perhaps it is intended to reflect the artist himself).

Roehler cannily replicates the aesthetic of Fassbinder’s films; bold colors, the cinematography (by Carl-Friedrich Koschnick), production design (done by Roehler himself), self-consciously theatrical sets, and the use of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame indicates that he did his homework.

Using metatheatre, Roehler and co-writer Klaus Richter draw parallels between snippets of Fassbinder cruelly manipulating actors on set and vignettes depicting his tortured personal life, but it becomes repetitive. It’s a shame they didn’t take a deeper dive into Fassbinder’s creative vision; what you’re left with is a highlight reel of his filmography sandwiched between yet another sad study in willful self-destruction.

(“Enfant Terrible” is now playing in select physical and virtual cinemas)

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.

Blu-ray reissue: Atlantic City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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Atlantic City – Paramount

Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon deliver outstanding lead performances in this 1980 neo-noir/character study from Louis Malle. Lancaster plays a fading, low-level gangster eking out a living as a bookie. He is also the weary caretaker (and occasional lover) of his former boss’s ailing widow (Kate Reid), who lives in the apartment directly below (whenever she needs him, she comically yanks on an old-fashioned room-to-room bell…making him appear more like an indentured servant).

The biggest thrill in the aging hood’s life derives from an occasional peep at his sexy neighbor (Susan Sarandon), whose kitchen window directly faces his across the courtyard of their apartment building. She conducts a nightly cleaning ritual involving fresh lemons over her kitchen sink-topless (I love the soliloquy Lancaster delivers about “the lemons” after she asks him what he does when he watches her…it is a scene that in the hands of two lesser actors would play more lasciviously than so sweetly). Fate and circumstance tosses them together and puts them on the run from murderous gangsters looking to recover some stolen drugs.

John Guare’s screenplay is rich in characterization, bolstered by a marvelous cast (right down to the bit parts). Atlantic City itself becomes a key character, thanks to Richard Ciupka’s cinematography and Malle’s skillful direction. Malle chose an interesting time to film there; many old hotels and casinos were in the process of being demolished in order to make way for new construction, which adds to the overall elegiac tone.

Paramount’s Blu-ray does show a fair amount of grain and is obviously “not restored” (to which some visible debris and scratches attest), but the picture is still a vast improvement over the DVD. No extras, but I am happy to see this gem finally get a decent hi-def release (a previous Blu-ray by Gaumont, which I have not viewed, was reportedly less-than-stellar).

Tribeca 2020: Pacified (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 25, 2020)

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The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil provide a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama. Sort of a cross between The King of New York and City of God, the story 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.

The narrative centers on the relationship between 13-year old Tati (Cassia Gil), her single (and drug-addicted) mother Andrea (Débora Nascimento), and Jaca (Bukassa Kabengele), the former “godfather” of the neighborhood who has just been released from prison. Jaca, who has mellowed while in the joint, is nonetheless chagrined to learn that the young protégé he left in charge has essentially declared himself boss, become a neighborhood terror and now views Jaca as a threat to his regime. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Stardust – Studio Canal (Region “B” Blu-ray)

Michael Apted directed this 1974 sequel to Claude Whatham’s 1973 film That’ll Be the Day. David Essex reprises his role as restless seeker Jim MacLaine, who has finally found his true passion: music.

The first third traces MacLaine’s  Beatle-like rise to fame with his beat combo “The Stray Cats” (it’s a safe bet Brian Setzer and band mates saw this film back in the day and “re-appropriated” the name).

With massive success comes the inevitable backstage squabbles and jealousies; eventually MacLaine is surrounded by music company weasels and yes-men whispering in his ear to dump his “backup” band and pursue a solo career as a rock god (who can say “no” to that?). Then comes the inevitable decline: too much drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll excess.

One of the best (and most realistic) films ever made about the music business. Clever casting of a number of veteran UK rockers like Adam Faith, Dave Edmunds, Keith Moon, Marty Wylde and Paul Nicholas adds greatly to the authenticity.

It feels like a squandered opportunity that Studio Canal didn’t just go ahead and package the film with That’ll Be the Day as a “two-fer”, but that’s a personal quibble. I’ll get over it. I’m just happy to finally have copies of both films with high-quality image and audio.