Category Archives: Family Issues

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.

SIFF 2019: Driveways (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.

SIFF 2019: Wild Rose (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Yes, it’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. Bonus…there’s a cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.