Category Archives: Family Issues

SIFF 2022: Drunken Birds (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication.

 

When you’re young: The Pebble and the Boy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Reporter : Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo : Um, no. I’m a mocker.

-from A Hard Day’s Night, screenplay by Alun Owen

Having grown up in the colonies, I didn’t grok “Mods and Rockers” until 1973, the year I bought The Who’s Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s paean to the teenage Mod subculture that flourished in the U.K. from the late 50s to mid-60s. The Mods had very distinct musical preferences (jazz, ska, R&B, soul), couture, and modes of transportation:

My jacket’s gonna be cut slim and checked
Maybe a touch of seersucker with an open neck
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat
I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet

– from “Sea and Sand”, by The Who

On occasion the Mods would rumble with members of another youth subculture who identified as “Rockers”. They were not as tailored as the Mods but had their own uniforms…let’s just say that they were into leather (as in Tuscadero), motorcycles (as opposed to scooters), and 50s rock (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, et.al.).

Here come duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
She’s tehone with the flying feet
You can break the peace daddy sickle grease
The beat is reet complete

– from “Sweet Gene Vincent”, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

By the time the Who were rhapsodizing about the Mods in their 1973 rock opera, the movement was all but relegated to the dustbins of history. In 1979, Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of Quadrophenia was released. Using the 1964 Brighton “youth riots” as a catalyst, Roddam fashioned a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the U.K. in the early 60s. Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s songs.

Here is where it gets interesting. Not long after Roddam’s film began to build a cult following in the U.K., a Mod revival took hold. It may be more accurate to call it a “post” Mod movement, as this iteration was more about co-opting the couture than embracing the culture. Did the film inspire this revival? Some have suggested it did.

While the Who was the band of choice for the original Mods, the 80s Mods embraced bands like The Jam, Secret Affair, and The Chords. Not coincidentally, all 3 of those bands are on the soundtrack for writer-director Chris Green’s comedy-drama The Pebble and the Boy.

19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent unfortunate demise in a traffic accident. John not only inherits his father’s house (his parents are divorced), but his Lambretta scooter, fully bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Coming home after the funeral, John contemplates his father’s bedroom, which is done up like a shrine to The Jam (John only likes “one of their songs”).

Initially, John puts the Lambretta up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter his father’s ashes in the sea.

Not long after he leaves Manchester, the scooter displays signs of needing a tune-up, so he looks up one his father’s pals from the Mod days (“Your dad and I first met at a Jam gig in ’81,” he reminisces to John). When his outgoing daughter Nicki (scene-stealer Sacha Parkinson) learns John has Paul Weller tickets, she invites herself along (she has her own scooter). After a few road trip misadventures (usually instigated by the free-spirited Nicki), the pair find themselves short of funds for completing their journey.

The more reserved John wants to turn back, but Nicki suggests they stop in nearby Woking (the Jam’s hometown, of course) to borrow money from Ronnie (Ricci Harnett), another of John’s father’s friends from the Mod days. The somewhat surly Ronnie and his, uh …friendly wife (Patsy Kensit) invite them to stay the night. The next day, John and Nicki hit the road to Brighton, now joined by Ronnie’s oddball son Logan (Max Boast).

Green’s film is like a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth in the way he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor (even when someone says, “Fuck off!” it’s so good natured, somehow). McNamee is an appealing lead (he reminds me of the young Timothy Hutton), but it’s Parkinson’s sly performance as the endearingly boisterous Nicki that kicks the film up a notch. Rubber-faced Boast is another discovery; he’s a riot.

The bucolic English countryside and Brighton seascapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Max Williams (not too surprising after seeing that his previous credits include documentaries for Discovery, National Geographic and the BBC). Add a great soundtrack, and The Pebble and the Boy emerges as one of my favorite films of 2021.

“The Pebble and the Boy” premieres November 16 on various digital platforms.

Tribeca 2021: The Last Film Show (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies.

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: 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: Ladies of Steel (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Finnish humor is not for everybody, as it leans toward deadpan (think Jim Jarmusch, who cites Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki as an influence). This road movie/dramedy from director Pamela Tola (co-written with Aleksi Bardy) is a kind of a geriatric take on Thelma and Louise.

Fearing that she has killed her husband after beaning him with a frying pan during an argument, a 70-ish woman named Inkeri (Leena Uotila) panics and hits the road with her two older sisters in tow. Misadventures ensue…including sexual, which is not something you see onscreen very often with actors of “a certain age”. Truth be told…there is something actually quite wonderful and liberating about it.

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.

SIFF 2021: The Earth is Blue as an Orange (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“Life during wartime” is not all about soldiers, generals, and politicians. The most overlooked participants are those who did not ask to be in the thick of it…the civilians caught in the crossfire. They are not spending time obsessing over borders, strategy, or ideology. They are just trying to keep their heads down and go about with their daily lives. Such is the plight of the Ukrainian family in this one-of-kind documentary.

Filmed near Donbass, Ukraine over a 2½-year period during and after the 2014 war in the region, it chronicles the daily life of a single mother and her four children. The mother is a writer, and one of her daughters is an aspiring film maker. There are times when the conflict intrudes (like when artillery shells explode much too close for comfort), but director Iryna Tsilyk avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on showing us the humanity of her subjects.

Blu-ray reissue: An Unmarried Woman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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An Unmarried Woman – Criterion Collection

I was overjoyed to learn this 1978 career high from the late writer-director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, Tempest, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moscow on the Hudson) was getting the Criterion treatment, because it is ripe for rediscovery.

Jill Clayburgh delivers a tour-de-force performance as an upscale Manhattanite who works at an art gallery. One day she meets her Wall Street broker husband of 16 years (Michael Murphy) for lunch, after which he suddenly and unexpectedly creates a public scene, blubbering and blurting out he has fallen in love with another woman.

Clayburgh’s reaction, as she reels first from shock, then goes from pain to anger to physical revulsion (within about 30 seconds) remains one of the best moments of acting I’ve ever seen. That’s just the warm-up for Clayburgh’s journey of emotional recovery and independence, which in retrospect is deeply rooted in the “self-actualization” movement of the 1970s.

Clayburgh was nominated for an Oscar, which she would have clinched in a less competitive year (she was up against Geraldine Page, Ingrid Bergman, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda). Brilliantly written, directed, and acted. Outstanding support from Alan Bates, Cliff Gorman, Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller and a scene-stealing 16 year-old Lisa Lucas.

Criterion’s Blu-ray has a restored 4K transfer. Extras include insightful and enlightening 2005 audio commentary by Mazursky and Clayburgh (although it makes you sad that they are no longer with us…both come across as such warm and generous creative spirits).

In one interesting anecdote, Mazursky talks about initially offering Jane Fonda the part. Fonda read the script, then turned it down with a comment to the effect that she was only interested in films that make a political statement (she had also already committed to working on Coming Home).

Sometime after the film came out, Fonda reached out to him and said she was sorry she had turned down the role, because after seeing it she realized An Unmarried Woman is very political, especially in light of its empowering feminist message.

There are also new interviews with Michael Murphy and Lisa Lucas, as well as a new interview with author Sam Wasson on Mazursky’s work. Excellent package…A+!