Category Archives: Family Issues

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i0.wp.com/i2.cinestaan.com/image-bank/1500-1500/185001-186000/185028.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://ik.imagekit.io/efa0ri0ffl/iffr-production/fiona-attachments/UzMBFQBpZmZyLmZpb25hLW9ubGluZS5uZXQ0AGF0dGFjaG1lbnRzL2Q2Zjk0YTk2LTk2MDQtNGEyZS1iNTM0LTE0MzBiMmZjZGYzMS5qcGc?tr=w-1376

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)

https://i1.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/topside.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i2.wp.com/www.straight.com/files/v3/styles/gs_feature/public/images/20/10/beans_kiawentiio_csebastienraymond.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i2.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2021/Films/Features/L/LadiesofSteel.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/www.siff.net/images/FESTIVAL/2021/Films/Features/F/FinalExam.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i2.wp.com/s3.zff.com/medialibrary/2020/09/THE_EARTH_IS_AS_BLUE_AS_AN_ORANGE_16x9_01.jpg?ssl=1

“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)

https://resizing.flixster.com/dBbwTUSYPt_3FscVDUf-0Oi094Y=/740x380/v1.bjsxODMzNjQ7ajsxODYzMjsxMjAwOzIwNDg7MTM3MA

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)

https://i1.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/sfc-datebook-wordpress/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/12/MER9119a7f264f50b4d5f5337b65a6a1_godfather1208-1024x691.jpg?resize=1024%2C691&ssl=1

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)

https://i0.wp.com/www.alternateending.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/yctQYbmF9ZyRTqdbvkDoL09H7jX.jpg?ssl=1

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.