Category Archives: Drug Culture

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.

Blu-ray reissue: The Harder They Come (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Harder They Come – Shout! Factory

While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s (with films like Dickie Jobson’s Countryman and Theodoros Bafaloukos’ Rockers), Perry Henzel’s 1973 cult classic can certainly lay claim as The One That Started It All.

From its opening scene, when a wide-eyed country boy named Ivan (played by reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s“You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to its blaze of glory finale, the film maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic music soundtrack.

Shout Factory’s 4K scan is taken from the original 16mm negative; although it should be pointed out that this is not a “restoration”, per se (i.e., I noticed occasional scratches and debris in the image). Image quality on previous transfers has been consistently problematic.

That said, this is the third (or maybe fourth?) home video version that I have owned over the years, so I can attest that Shout Factory’s 2019 Blu-ray can boast the best image and sound quality yet. I haven’t plowed through all the extras yet, but the 52-minute feature “A Hard Road to Travel” is an enlightening look at the production history.

Where the deer and The Meat Puppets play: Desolation Center (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 21, 2019)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

From sacrificed spearheads to Burning Man, the one constant for humankind is the need for ritual. Ceremonies, whether somber or exultant, reinforce our sense of group identity.

In short, you gotta fight for your right to party. Even if it’s in the middle of the desert:

The promoter of an event set up around the “Storm Area 51” internet craze in the remote Nevada desert pulled the plug due to low attendance, but the host of a festival for several thousand people in the tiny town of Rachel said her show would go on.

“Area 51 Basecamp” organizer Keith Wright said that after drawing just 500 attendees at a Friday event planned for 5,000 at the Alien Research Center souvenir shop in Hiko, he had to pull the plug.

“We put on a safe event for the people that showed up,” Wright said. “But we had to make the decision today because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to staff each day.

“It was a gamble financially. We lost.”

Several dozen campers still at the site could stay until Sunday, he added.

In Rachel, Little A’Le’Inn owner Connie West said she was sad to hear the Hiko festival didn’t succeed. In a voice hoarse from stress and lack of sleep, she said a noon-to-midnight slate of “Alienstock” event musical entertainment would continue for the several thousand revelers camping on her property and nearby federal land.

“This is the most fabulous time,” West said. “I’m just so grateful that people came. This is their event as much as it is mine.”

Lincoln county sheriff Kerry Lee said it was “pretty calm” early on Saturday in Rachel and Hiko. In Nye county, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said no one showed up at a main entrance and an auxiliary gate at the once-secret Area 51 US air force facility.

Wehrly revised to 100 each the number of people who appeared at each of those gates early on Friday near Amargosa Valley, a 90-minute drive west of Las Vegas.

Lee, about a two-hour drive north of Las Vegas, said revelers gathered until about 4am at two gates between Hiko and Rachel, and said about 20 people broke from among revelers and “acted like they were going to storm but stopped short”.

Lee and Wright reported one arrest, for disorderly conduct, at the “Area 51 Basecamp” event.

Earlier, officials reported five arrests, including one man treated for dehydration by festival medics in Rachel.

Lee said a man reported missing on Friday morning after heading Thursday from a festival campground in Hiko toward an Area 51 gate was found safe in the evening.

The mood among the assembled remained mostly harmless. While costumed space aliens were a common and sometimes hilarious sight in events that began on Thursday, no one had reported seeing actual extraterrestrials or UFOs.

“Mostly harmless”. LOL. Somewhere out there in the ether, Douglas Adams is spinning.

The “Storm Area 51” meme may have fired the imaginations of millions earlier this week, but by Friday night it fizzled into several hundred disappointed people, standing in a circle somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert…who eventually began to dance.

I only bring this up because I watched a documentary Friday night that oddly mirrors the Area 51 gathering. While there’s naught to do with UFOs or government cover-ups, Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center does involve rituals, desert gatherings…and dancing.

Swezey, a scenester in the early 80s L.A. punk explosion, founded “Desolation Center”, a performance venue with no fixed geographical address. Desolation Center was an umbrella Swezey used for a series of guerilla music and art performances he organized in warehouses, lofts, and rehearsal spaces (think of it as a pre-internet “flash mob” concept).

According to one of the interviewees in the film, one of the main “inspirations” for the clandestine events was notoriously fascistic Chief of the L.A.P.D. Daryl Gates. Gates was no friend to the burgeoning punk scene; he deployed his officers to shut down club shows and generally harass punk fans whenever possible (never mind that despite the “in your face” posturing of the music and fashion, most of the kids were just having harmless fun).

Eventually, Swezey got the bright idea that if he staged his events out of town…like way out of town where Jesus lost his shoes, the performers and the audience would be free, free to ride without getting hassled by The Man. So it was that in April of 1983, he approached the LA band Savage Republic about doing a show in a dry lake bed near Joshua Tree. They were in. Once he talked The Minutemen into coming aboard, “The Mojave Exodus” was on. Swezey hand-crafted 250 cardboard tickets ($12.50 admission).

He distributed the tickets to record stores around LA; to his surprise they sold out. Using the money, he rented 3 school buses, a PA and a generator. In the film, Mariska Leyssius (a member of the band Psi Com) recalls how she assisted Swezey in organizing the event, as well as helpfully advising ticket holders to “keep your drugs and liquor below the line of the window” of the bus, in case they ran into cops during the road trip to the event site.

The event was a smashing success for all concerned, even if it failed to set the world on fire. The film documents The Mojave Exodus, as well as its follow-up, “The Mojave Auszug”, which took place in an isolated spot near Mecca, California in March of 1984.

The German influence was the result of a sabbatical Swezey had taken to explore the scene in Berlin, where he befriended the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who ended up headlining that second event. In addition to musicians, a small group of performance artists known collectively as Survival Research Lab also appeared. Aptly named, their act included blowing up refrigerators and shooting objects with a Gatling gun (have I mentioned none of these desert events involved obtaining a permit?).

The recollections by participants are alternately hilarious and harrowing (let’s just say there was some acid involved). My eyes did start to glaze over when the anecdotes became tantamount to getting cornered Monday morning by a co-worker who insists on sharing details of how fucked-up he got at that party Saturday night, but for the most part it’s a fascinating look at a little-known chapter in alternative culture history. The film also connects the dots between these obscure little desert bacchanals and the massive like-minded festivals we have nowadays like Burning Man, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.

Monsters from the id: Tigers Are Not Afraid (***) & The Spirit of the Beehive (****)

By Dennis Hartley

https://i1.wp.com/d1u4oo4rb13yy8.cloudfront.net/ijyqvsxkhk-1462558803.png?w=474&ssl=1Suffer not the little children: Still from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

https://i2.wp.com/images1.houstonpress.com/imager/u/original/11348529/tigers-are-not-afraid-3-800x445.jpg?resize=474%2C264&ssl=1Is there an echo in here? Still from Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

In my 2009 review of Where the Wild Things Are, I wrote:

Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.

In Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” only children “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.”, Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. […]

Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, [the protagonist of “Where The Wild Things Are”] Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”). […]

Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly can not only wrestle with his inner demons but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.

Growing pains can overtax developing minds; it’s no wonder children often turn to fantasy to absorb the cost. Sadly some, like the young protagonists in Issa Lopez’s modern-day fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid, are forced to pay additional baggage fees.

Set in the slums of a Mexican town against a backdrop of warring drug cartels, the story centers on 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara). Set adrift since her mother’s recent disappearance, Estrella lives in a state of dread.

Her mother was likely abducted and murdered at the behest of a ruthless local politician (Tenoch Huerta) whose approach to gerrymandering is simple: liquidate all non-supporters. His dirty work is handled by thugs that the locals call huascas, supervised by a brutal drug cartel member named Caco.

Even within the sanctity of the classroom, Estrella can find no respite from the horror of her everyday reality; her day at school ends abruptly when a gun battle breaks out nearby, which sends the students diving under their desks to avoid becoming collateral damage.

Soon, the absence of her mother and a dwindling food supply sends Estrella out in the streets, where she encounters a group of orphaned lost boys, led by pistol-wielding “El Shine” (Juan Ramón López).

Shine is reluctant to accept her in his gang; he demands she must prove her worth by assassinating the dreaded Caco. The look on Estrella’s face telegraphs that she is less than enthused about carrying out the request; but desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, Shine has convinced her Caco is responsible for her mother’s disappearance (he claims to have irrefutable proof; but won’t show her).

It is at this juncture that it is suggested Estrella may possess Special Powers. As she stealthily (and shakily) creeps into Caco’s darkened apartment, where he appears to have nodded off in his living room chair while watching TV, she closes her eyes and makes a wish: “I wish I didn’t have to kill him.” Long story short-it seems somebody already has.

Is it coincidence…or did she “will” Caco to die? Opting to hedge her bets, Estrella rushes back to the gang hangout to give Shine his gun back and tell him she took care of that thing they had talked about. The boys are all duly impressed and accept her into the fold.

Oh…did I mention that she also sees dead people?

Lopez’s film conveys a sense of realism, infused with elements of fantasy and horror. Many have drawn parallels between her film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth; while I see a connection, I’d say the more obvious antecedent is Victor Erice’s lyrical and haunting 1973 drama The Spirit of the Beehive (which surely inspired Pan’s Labyrinth).

In fact, I was so taken by the parallels that after previewing Tigers Are Not Afraid, I immediately reached for my DVD copy of The Spirit of the Beehive to confirm whether my memory was playing tricks on me (in this type of arcane exercise, it rarely does; however, half the time I wish I could remember where I left my fucking wallet and keys).

The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in 1940 Spain, in an isolated village on the vast Castilian plain. While “The Rain in Spain” may now be playing in your head (please accept my sincere apologies if it is), this is more about the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

This was the point in time when Franco had fully seized power in the country after winning the Spanish Civil War (which had cost the nation nearly half a million lives). Needless to say, everyday life under a totalitarian regime is not healthy for children and other living things.

While she is too young to understand politics, 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, in a remarkably affecting performance) can nonetheless sense the quiet desperation that appears to be slowly consuming her loving but oddly detached parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera).

While their upper middle-class life affords them a large villa and a live-in maid, Ana and her 9-year old sister Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) are essentially latchkey kids (they’re not living hand-to-mouth like the street orphans in Tigers Are Not Afraid, but are as insular and “lost” in their own way).

When a print of James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein arrives for an engagement at the village’s tiny movie theater, Ana’s life changes. As filmmaker Monte Hellman observes in his appreciation of the film written for the Criterion DVD edition:

Ana is disturbed by the killing of the little girl in the film and doesn’t understand why the monster is also killed.  Isabel pretends to have the answers to Ana’s questions, but when pressed later, can say only that they’re not really dead.  It’s only a movie, and nothing is real. Besides, she’s seen the monster.  He’s a spirit, and she can make him appear whenever she calls him.

In subsequent scenes, the children play with and at death.  Isabel experimentally attempts to strangle her cat, stopping when the cat scratches her.  She applies the blood on her finger to her lips, as if it were lipstick.  Later, she pretends to be dead to frighten Ana.  Finally, Ana experiences the death of a real person, a deserter from the army whom she befriended.  We feel Ana’s crisis as our own, for we have all passed from innocence to knowledge of mortality at some time in our own childhood.

And so it comes back to the theme as to how children under extreme duress come to grips with trauma; in the case of Estrella in Tigers Are Not Afraid and Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (or for that matter, young Max in Where the Wild Things Are) it first requires literal invocation of their inner demons before they can be “destroyed”. Or perhaps you can trace it back to J.M. Barrie: “All you need is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust.”

 

Blu-ray reissue: Year of the Dragon (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Year of the Dragon – Warner Brothers

This brutal, visceral crime thriller/culture clash drama from 1985 is one of writer-director Michael Cimino’s most polarizing films. Nonetheless, it has garnered a sizable cult following over the years.

Co-written by Oliver Stone and based on Robert Daley’s novel, Cimino’s follow-up to his critically drubbed 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate (no pressure!) divided both critics and audiences with its uncompromising take on gang violence, the international drug trade, and ethnic stereotyping.

Mickey Rourke stars as a decorated NYC police captain newly assigned to Chinatown who embarks on a single-minded mission to bust up the various criminal enterprises run by the district’s powerful triads (by any means necessary). Rourke’s combative “cop on the edge” (also a Vietnam vet) is equal parts Popeye Doyle and Archie Bunker; his casual racism suggests that he may have not been the ideal political choice for this posting.

Rourke really pulls out all the stops. John Lone also does a great turn as his sociopathic nemesis, a politically savvy rising star in the Chinese mob.

As usual, Warner skimps on extras (there’s a commentary track by Cimino), but image and sound quality are tops.

SIFF 2019: This is Not Berlin (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17 year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.