Category Archives: Family Issues

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+!

Blu-ray reissue: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Just when I thought I was out…Francis Ford Coppola pulls me back in for a third (fourth?) dip into my wallet for the “definitive” cut of the film formerly known as The Godfather Part III.

In a short video intro on the Blu-ray, Coppola justifies his subtle re-cut thusly: “You’ll see a film that has a different beginning, has a different ending. Many scenes throughout have been re-positioned; and the picture has been given I think a new life…which does, in fact, act as illumination of what [The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II] meant.”

So, has all been illuminated? In the interest of fairness (and being that I was aware of the release date for the Blu-ray) I re-watched The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II recently (probably the 50th time) so that all the motifs would be fresh in my mind before diving into this slightly reshuffled “new” coda. I admit that I have more often than not binge-watched “I” and “II” without feeling compelled to revisit “III” (no thanks I’m full).

The result of watching the new cut with somewhat “fresh” eyes is that it is not as “bad” as I remember (“bad” intended as relative in the context that “I” and “II” constitute the greatest gangster saga in film history, making it a hard act to “coda”-even for its creator). On the other hand, it still doesn’t elevate the film to the masterpiece status of its prequels.

First let’s dispense with the snarky quips about Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary that have tainted the film for years. If anything, her “non-actor” reading of the character renders her proto-mumblecore performance as naturalistic; after all, could she help being a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player who was playing a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player?

Frankly, what I find most distracting performance-wise in III is her Aunt Talia Shire’s tendency to overact…with her hands. For whatever reason, Shire (reprising her role as Michael’s sister Connie) made an odd acting choice to gesticulate wildly in nearly every scene (I know Italians have a rep for “talking with their hands” …but Shire overdoes it).

Nits aside, the refurbished cut holds up well. Of the changes he made, Coppola’s repositioning of one particular scene to the beginning was the wisest, because it works as a visual and thematic callback to the opening moments of the original Godfather. All in all, it is as satisfying a “coda” for the saga one could expect within a relatively scant 2½ hour running time (considering I and II total hours of narrative to wrap up).

The transfer on Paramount’s Blu-ray is stunning in image and sound quality (both elements are newly restored). There are no extras (aside from Coppola’s 2 minute long introductory spiel) but I’m sure there will be a super-deluxe bells and whistles edition at some point. If you’re a fan of the trilogy (who isn’t?) I think you’ll be pleased.

Blu-ray reissue: Leave Her to Heaven ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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Leave Her to Heaven – Criterion Collection

There have been a lot of movies about possessive lovers, but the character of “Ellen Berent” (played by achingly beautiful Gene Tierny) takes the cake. Shot in eye-popping Technicolor, John M. Stahl’s 1945 drama (adapted by Jo Swerling from a novel by Ben Ames Williams) is equal parts film noir and twisted soaper.

Cornel Wilde co-stars as Richard Harland, a novelist who has a chance meeting with Ellen on a train. Before he knows what hit him, the slightly off-kilter but undeniably alluring socialite has introduced Richard to her well-to-do family, and in the blink of an eye, Ellen is dragging him down the aisle. Not that he resists (I mean, my god…look at Gene Tierny…look at her!) but as tends to occur in  quickie betrothals, any poisons that may lurk in the mud don’t hatch out until after the honeymoon’s over.

As pointed out by film critic Imogen Sara Smith in an enlightening video essay produced exclusively for Criterion’s Blu-ray release, Tierny was perennially underrated as an actor due to her striking looks. I heartily agree-Tierney delivers a subtly chilling performance in this film. While you could call Leave Her to Heaven the original Fatal Attraction, by comparison Glenn Close’s clingy psycho is more like a cartoon villain and far less compelling. Excellent support from Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Phillips and Ray Collins.

Leon Shamroy’s cinematography has never looked this luminous on home video. Criterion’s edition features a new 2K restoration by Twentieth Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive, and The Film Foundation. A must-have for the noir fan on your gift list.

An inspector calls: Guest of Honour (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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In my 2015 review of Caryn Waechter’s drama The Sisterhood of Night, I wrote:

Jeez…adolescence was traumatic enough before the internet and advent of cyber-bullying (yes, I’m that old). Unfortunately (and perversely), it’s become much easier for the perpetrators and that much tougher on the victims. Your tormentors no longer have to hang out after school, bundled up for inclement weather, waiting for you to finish with chess club so they can stomp on your glasses (or worse). Now, they can chill out in the comfort of their parent’s basement, cloaked in anonymity, as they harass, denigrate, flame, impersonate, or stalk ‘til the cows come home (with virtual impunity).

As ephemeral as one’s “reputation” is to begin with, we live in an era where “it” hangs by the slenderest thread: a mere keystroke or the press of a “send” button can annihilate it. What is a “reputation” anyway? (If you say it’s an album by Taylor Swift…to the moon).

Well, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster:

rep·​u·​ta·​tion | \ ˌre-pyə-ˈtā-shən

Definition of reputation

1a: overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general

b: recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability // has the reputation of being clever

2: a place in public esteem or regard: good name // trying to protect his reputation

If I read that correctly, a “reputation” is at once objective and subjective; as “esteem”, “regard” and “character” is largely determined as “seen or judged by people in general”. “Reputation” is a key theme of the latest film from esteemed (ahem) Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey).

Guest of Honour focuses on the mercurial relationship between a father (David Thewlis) and his daughter (Laysla De Oliveira). The story of their relationship unfolds in classic Egoyan fashion, which is to say that it unravels slowly and deliberately in a non-linear construct.

As the film opens, Jim (dad) has died. His daughter Veronica meets with the priest (Luke Wilson) who will be conducting the service. As Jim was never an active member of his congregation, the priest gently presses Veronica for a glimpse into his life and character. Of course, this venerable setup (as old as Citizen Kane) telegraphs “Flashbacks Ahead!”

Turns out dad was nothing, if not quirky. A failed restaurateur-turned-health inspector (yes-that’s too perfect), Jim, who lost his wife to cancer when Veronica was a young girl, is a brooding widower who spends his spare time lovingly caring for his…pet rabbit (you could say that “rabbit’s foot” is this film’s “Rosebud”).

Back to reputation. In reviewing her father’s life, Veronica is also telling her own story to the priest (or is it a confession?). We learn she is a high school music teacher; or rather, she used to be until something happened. Or did it happen? At any rate, her reputation suffered (I am avoiding spoilers).

Whether this “something” happened or didn’t happen, Veronica, for reasons known only to herself (and to be revealed by film’s end) takes full responsibility, citing that she abused her position of power as a teacher (again…which she may or may not have done).

In case we can’t connect the dots, Jim, acting as a concerned father, seizes an opportunity to use his position of power (i.e. the “power” vested in him as a health inspector to affect the reputation of a restaurant) to restore Veronica’s reputation.

If this is beginning to sound contrived and heavy-handed…It pains me to report it is.

I found the first half intriguing, but after hard-to-buy reveals and a silly penultimate scene (possibly inspired by Francis Veber’s 1998 social satire Le Diner de Cons) I stopped caring about the characters (fatal in a character study). To be fair, viewers less familiar with the director’s oeuvre may be more forgiving; my expectations were high.

It pains me because Egoyan is a filmmaker I have a great deal of respect for. For most of the 90s, few directors could touch him when it came to emotionally shattering, deeply affecting dramas about the secrets we keep and the lies we tell (to ourselves, as well as to those we love) – all were intelligently written, sensitively directed, and beautifully acted.

When it comes to brooding, David Thewlis is unsurpassed. Despite the shortcomings of the film, this is his most compelling turn since his 1993 breakout role in Mike Leigh’s Naked. That said (through no fault of his) Thewlis’ inscrutable, officious, and fastidious character feels anachronistic; less believable in 21st Century Canada and more at home in one of the anti-totalitarian films made behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and 70s (Jim would be The Petty Bureaucrat).

Alas, Thewlis is the best thing about Guest of Honour. Still, I look forward to Egoyan’s next project. After all, the man has a reputation to uphold.

Blu-ray reissue: All Night Long (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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All Night Long – Kino-Lorber

This quirky, underrated romantic comedy from Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont has been a personal favorite of mine since I first stumbled across it on late-night TV back in the mid-80s (with a million commercials).

Reminiscent of Michael Winner’s 1967 social satire I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, the film opens with a disenchanted executive (Gene Hackman) telling his boss to shove it, which sets the tone for the mid-life crisis that ensues.

Along the way, Hackman accepts a demotion offered by upper management in lieu of termination (night manager at one of the company’s drug stores), has an affair with his neighbor’s eccentric wife (an uncharacteristically low-key Barbra Streisand) who has been fooling around with his teenage son (Dennis Quaid), says yes to a divorce from his wife (Dianne Ladd) and decides to become an inventor (I told you it was quirky).

Marred slightly by some incongruous slapstick, but well-salvaged by W.D. Richter’s drolly amusing screenplay. Hackman is wonderful as always, and I think the scene where Streisand sings a song horrendously off-key (while accompanying herself on the organ) is the funniest thing she’s ever done in a film. Despite Hackman and Streisand’s star power, the movie was curiously ignored when it was initially released. Maybe this reissue will help it find new fans.

Even though the film does not necessarily appear to have been restored, the 1080p presentation is sharp, with decent color saturation. The sole extra is a new interview with screenwriter Richter, who (to my surprise) is cantankerous about how the film turned out!

Blu-ray reissue: The Earthling (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Earthling – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

The late William Holden had a distinguished career that began in the late 1930s and ended with his untimely death in 1981 (his final role was in the Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B., released that year). In an interview on TCM last year, his widow (actress Stephanie Powers) stated one of his favorite roles was playing the lead in this small 1980 drama.

Holden plays a terminally ill drifter who returns to his native Australia for the first time in years, to take one final solitary hike to the isolated homestead where he grew up. By chance, he crosses paths with a dazed young boy (Ricky Schroeder) who is wandering around the wilderness after witnessing the death of his parents in a freak accident. At first, he is gruff and indifferent to the boy (almost cruelly so); but necessity sparks a “master and apprentice” relationship between the two as they forge on through the wild. Peter Collinson directed this unique and moving film.

No extras, but Kino’s new 2K mastering nicely accentuates the beautiful scenic locations.

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.