Category Archives: Fantasy

SIFF 2022: Juju Stories (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Submitted for your approval…an anthology of three modern urban horror tales steeped in juju lore (directed by Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama, and C.J. Obasi). It’s an uneven collection; the most compelling of the triptych is Obasi’s “Suffer the Witch”. The film is presented by the Surreal 16 Collective, described as “…an initiative that intends to create artistically minded films that move away from the reigning imperialism of Nollywood aesthetics and production practices”.

Over the hills and far away: 15 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2022)

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Saint Patrick’s Day is this coming Thursday, so I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations. Sláinte!

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The Commitments –Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some respects, The Commitments is an expansion of Parker’s 1980 film Fame; except here the scenario switches from New York to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working-class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong. In 2007, cast member Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!).

Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing. “Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”.

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A Date for Mad Mary – Seana Kerslake makes a remarkable debut in Darren Thornton’s 2017 dramedy (co-written by the director with his brother Colin) about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20-year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Assuming that her volatile friend won’t find a date, Charlene refuses her a “plus one”. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists she will; leading to an unexpected relationship.

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem. It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comic in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations. An insightful and affecting glimpse at the human condition.

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Hear My Song – This charming, quirky comedy-drama from writer-director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones) concerns an Irish club-owner in England (Adrian Dunbar) who’s having a streak of bad luck. He’s not only on the outs with his lovely fiancée (Tara Fitzgerald), but is forced to shut down his venue after a series of dud bookings (like “Franc Cinatra”) puts him seriously in the red. Determined to win back his ladylove and get his club back in the black, he stows away on a freighter headed for his native Dublin. He enlists an old pal to help him hunt down and book a legendary tenor (Ned Beatty, in one of his best roles) who has hasn’t performed in decades (he’s hiding from the tax man). Fabulous script, direction, and acting. Funny, touching and guaranteed to lift your spirits.

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I Am Belfast – I try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive for the indescribable when I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit.

I’m pretty sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (I know Cousins loves that movie, because he gushed over it in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). The lovely cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience  for patient viewers.

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In Bruges – OK, full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a somewhat lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, then a third… I realized that I like this film quite a lot (happens sometimes…nobody’s perfect!).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb and an adjective.

 

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Into the West – A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one pretty pair o’ humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

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Miller’s Crossing–his 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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My Left Foot – The first (and best) of three collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This moving 1989 biopic concerns Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical challenges.

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity.

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

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Odd Man Out – An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the dark and shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is most definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up remarkably well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with strong political undercurrents. The great cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

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Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  Original full review

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The Quiet Man –A John Ford classic. I’ll admit to never having been a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s perfect in this role as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although tame by modern standards, romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara are quite fervid for the era. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

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The Secret of Roan Inish – John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have received a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal. Ork, ork!

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his 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth.

After his daughter is nearly swept away by the sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

Moore’s film has a timeless quality and a visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is a genuine sense of heart in Moore’s use of hand-drawn animation; something sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” glutting multiplexes these days.

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 8, 2022)

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Dee: Jane, do you ever feel like you are just this far from being completely hysterical twenty-four hours a day?

Jane: Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty-four hours a day.

— from Grand Canyon, screenplay by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan

HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

— from 2001: A Space Odyssey, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

George Fields: [to Dorothy/Michael] I BEGGED you to get therapy!

— from Tootsie, screenplay by Murray Schisgal

With more of us living la vida shut-in these days , the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 12 personal faves that I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; films I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, feeling anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down. Take one or two before bedtime; cocktail optional.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsing rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things get complicated, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about. A unique film that fully engages the senses. You may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but it’s the last scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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The Dish – This 2000 Australian sleeper is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is quite moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on the 1997 dramedy The Castle (recommended!).

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that has been labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never recorded a studio album and stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

An enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and glean a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Diva is an entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) informs Jules. Slick, stylish and cheeky with an engaging international cast.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s clever script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and feels as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (like John snorting the Coke bottle). Music highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Harold and Maude – Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens.

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Local Hero – This droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals, a “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ll ever see.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films that I have become emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Perhaps best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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My Neighbor Totoro  – While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits.

It’s a lovely tale about a young professor and his two daughters settling into their new country house (a “fixer-upper”) while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring and stumbles into the verdant court of a “king” nestled within the roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (an amalgam of every plush toy you ever cuddled with as a child).

Granted, it’s Miyazaki’s most simplistic and kid-friendly tale…but that’s not a put down. Miyazaki’s usual themes remain intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements magical, yet the human characters remain down-to-earth and easy to relate to. A charmer.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 88 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. Not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, long-form music video, and mockumentary. The vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite films of all time, period full stop (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi (definite contenders) it is akin to the unenviable task of describing color to a blind person.

I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…you’d probably say “That sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I also told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh and say “I’m being punk’d, right?” Of course, there is much more to it. It’s about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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 The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s one thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for his chance to pop out of a box and sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal

Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-TV era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Mostly dead: Here After (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 24, 2021)

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Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

After all, you know, there are worse things in life than death. I mean, if you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know exactly what I mean.

– Woody Allen (screenplay), Love and Death

Comedian: Well, there’s a nice-looking young man over there. Hi, how’d ya die?

Daniel Miller: On stage, like you.

– Albert Brooks (screenplay), Defending Your Life

I think it is safe to say that Life’s greatest mystery is “what happens to us when we die?” As the dead remain irritatingly consistent in shedding absolutely no light on this matter, theologians, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers and erm…insurance salesmen have had carte blanche to mine the associative uncertainties and anxieties; proselytizing, theorizing, philosophizing, or fantasizing about possible scenarios (as of this writing only the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” part can be confirmed).

Writer-director Harry Greenberger’s seriocomic romantic fantasy Here After is the latest entry in a venerable genre that took firm root in the 1940s with films like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), although I sense it’s more directly influenced by (relatively) contemporary fare like Made in Heaven (1987), Wings of Desire (1987), Ghost (1990) and Defending Your Life (1991).

So the dead guy getting his “second chance” here is a starving NYC-based actor named Michael (Andy Karl). After creating a public scene breaking up with his girlfriend in an airport terminal, he hops in his car and races onto the thruway in a fit of pique. A textbook case of distracted driving puts him on a (literal) collision course with Destiny.

When Michael comes to, he’s in a high-rise executive-style office with a commanding view of New York City (or a spectral facsimile thereof) and face to face with an ethereal woman (Christina Ricci) who matter-of-factually informs him of his unfortunate demise. He’s dead, but not quite ready to continue to his final destination. This is, of course, quite a lot for Michael to take in. Ricci proceeds to lay down the ground rules of his purgatory.

He is in what some might call a “special hell” (of sorts) reserved exclusively for single New Yorkers who check out before finding their soul mate (they only “go” in pairs, she tells him). Michael is tasked to “return” to the city, where he will be given a limited amount of time to find a nice dead girl to spend eternity with (how many times have we heard that story?).

He can’t see the living, nor can they see him. However, like Haley Joel Osment, he sees dead people. Initially, he can’t figure why they rudely ignore him when he tries to engage anyone in conversation, until one of them takes pity on the newbie and points out being dead doesn’t change the fact that they are still New Yorkers (it’s one of the funniest exchanges in the film).

On a hunch, Michael looks up a late friend (played with scuzzy aplomb by Michael Rispoli of The Sopranos), who advises him on the dating dos and don’ts for the afterlife. When Michael finally does meet “the one” (French actress Nora Arnezeder) …she’s a living person (don’t ask).

Despite some unevenness (a dark subplot involving a psycho stalker feels incongruous) Greenberger has fashioned a (mostly) charming tale with appealing leads and a good supporting cast (it was a pleasant surprise to see Jeannie Berlin pop up in a brief scene as Michael’s mom). I like Greenberger’s choices for the soundtrack, particularly his use of “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” by Jefferson Starship in a lovely interlude.If you’re looking for light midsummer popcorn escapism without capes and Spandex, Here After may be your ticket to heaven.

SIFF 2021: The Bears’ Famous Invasion (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Granted, the bruin incursion recounted in this charming fairy-tale is likely more “famous” in Italy than elsewhere (Lorenzo Mattotti’s animated film is adapted from a popular Italian children’s book that I have never heard of called La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia), but the story has universal appeal. A wandering minstrel and his young daughter happen onto a gargantuan bear while seeking shelter in a cave. Lucky for them, the hungry bear is up for swapping tales (as opposed to gobbling down an obvious easy dinner). The two tales told intersect in clever fashion. An imaginative and splendidly animated family-friendly entertainment.

Guest review: Call of the Wild (***)

By Bob Bennett

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Summary: An enjoyable film that skips the intensity of the original Jack London tale for an endearing “man loves dog” theme with surprisingly good special effects. Haters are gonna hate but this movie punches above its weight and makes you ponder what “civilized” really means.

** Possible light spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the source novel**

I am an unlikely admirer of Chris Sanders’ new family-friendly fantasy adventure Call of the Wild. I have never liked the perennially grumpy Harrison Ford, was convinced that using a CGI dog would be a travesty and was primed for disappointment as an amateur Klondike gold rush historian (I lead tours in Seattle on the gold rush).  And so, it was a surprise when I was genuinely touched by this movie that somehow punched above its weight.

The movie is the tenth film adaptation of Jack London’s original novel, The Call of the Wild, which was an instant success when released in 1903.  The book, authored by one of the first hardy souls to travel over the Chilkoot Pass when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, was unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of nature.

Essentially the book is about how easily the thin veneer of society can be stripped away to reveal a harsh world where man and dog fight to survive through tooth and claw.  Frankly, in 2020 the book is a tough read; think angry Darwinism focused on inherent violence.

This version (adapted from London’s novel by Michael Green) is very Disney-esque, meaning that the movie is suitable for kids but still has enough going on for adults to be entertained.  Violent parts of the book are softened, non-PC portions are left behind (there are many) and new story elements have been added to heighten appeal.

Like the book, the movie presents human feelings through the experiences of a dog without going all in for anthropomorphism (the animals do not talk for example).  The book was always a work of fiction and the movie borders on fantasy.

Buck, a large city dog who is kidnapped and sold into the violent sled dog trade, is the main character.  As a stylized CGI dog, Buck has a commanding personality with just enough visual fidelity to let you regard him as real and with few distracting details.  Buck’s leaps and bounds are incredibly life-like due to use of motion capture sequences of a real dog and his facial expressions are very realistic – and I say that as someone who owns two large canines.

The other dogs in the movie and the wolves are well portrayed – such is the control that CGI gives the director.  One has to wonder if this type of lush storytelling will color our common perception of nature, since there is less and less “real nature.”  As another plus, the filming had a very low footprint on the real environment.  Still, if you can’t get over the CGI, you will not like the movie (in case you were wondering, all the human characters are portrayed by real actors).

The protagonist is a grizzled and despondent prospector, John Thornton, who is played by the well cast Harrison Ford.  John rescues Buck from a cruel and clueless owner (a city slicker of course) and bonds with him.  Ford struggles with old age, regrets and alcoholism – great family fare right?

There are three phases in the narrative.  The first covers Buck’s kidnapping from his plush city life and his baptism into the cruel world of men the dogs they enslave in pursuit of money.  The second features Buck development as a leader of his own pack of dogs.  The final chapter is Buck and John’s Homeric journey into the wilderness which is essentially a quest for deliverance from the evils of man.

The movie was shot partially on green screen, partially on location in California and features gorgeous background plates shot in the Yukon.  Somehow it mostly all works except for a bizarre scene where a pheasant is flushed (a few thousand miles North of their real habitat).

A high point is an incredible dog team action scene with Buck having earned his place as lead dog.  Buck takes his humans for the ride of their life and saves them from a huge avalanche (which was not in the book).

The movie is ultimately a lead up to Buck gradually integrating with a pack of wolves (who are incredibly lifelike).  The conflicting pull that Buck feels for John and the call of the wild by his new pack is the central theme of the story and is beautifully rendered on screen.

“Call of the WIld” is available for home viewing on pay-per-view (Disney)

Bring back that sunny day: Weathering with You (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 29, 2020)

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It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!

February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.

In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.

I probably should have taken notes; some of the finer narrative details have slipped what’s left of my addled mind. But I remember the rain. There’s lots of rain. In fact the film opens with a rainstorm; a rather tempestuous one that tosses our young protagonist, a teenage runaway named Hokada (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) into the drink (he’s hopped on a ferry, fleeing his rural island home to lose himself in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo). He’s saved by a man named Keisuka (Shun Ogari), who hands Hokada his business card.

Rain-soaked Tokyo is a less-than-welcoming new home for the likes of Hokada, who finds himself sleeping in alleys for a spell, with naught but the clothes on his back and a growling stomach. One day, he encounters a compassionate girl around his age named Hina (Nana Mori), a fast food worker who gives him a free meal. Hina and Hokada are bonded by family difficulties; with Hokada being a runaway and Hina recently orphaned (she barely supports herself and her young brother with her meager McDonald’s wages).

Fate continues to bounce Hokada around like a tennis ball. Still living on the streets, Hokada crosses paths with a Yakuza; he barely survives the encounter and stumbles across a gun, which he decides to hang onto for protection. Still, he’s buoyed by his burgeoning friendship with Hina and decides to look up his rescuer from the ferry. Turns out his savior runs a somewhat dubious news stringer agency out of a cramped office.

Keisuka’s sole employee is his flirty 20-something niece, Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), who convinces her uncle to hire Hokada on spec to see if he can help them chase down stories to sell to tabloids. Hokada’s first assignment is to dig up some background for Keisuka’s article-in progress on a local legend regarding so-called “Sunshine Girls”, who allegedly have supernatural abilities to stop rain events purely through concentration and prayer.

One day by chance, Hokada is shocked to espy his new friend Hina being shepherded into a seedy exotic dance club by a less-than-savory looking character. Hokada pulls out the gun that he found earlier and confronts the man, who has intimidated Hina into working for him. Hokada and Hina flee to the rooftop of an abandoned building, where there is a Shinto shrine. Hina convinces Hokada to toss his gun away and reveals that she has the ability to stop rain with prayer. I know-that’s a lot to unpack in just one afternoon.

Therein lies the film’s main weakness…there’s too much to unpack in one afternoon (by the way, there are more developments to the story-so I haven’t spoiled anything). Shinkai can’t decide what he wants to convey: a coming-of-age tale, a social “message” drama, a fantasy, a statement about climate change. This may be an unfair comparison, but the narrative is not as focused and cohesive as in his previous effort, the outstanding 2017 film Your Name. That said, this is a very different type of story, and more ambitious in scope.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Weathering With You, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

Blu-ray reissue: Millennium Actress (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Millennium Actress – Shout! Factory

I think some of the best sci-fi films of the past several decades have originated not from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell displayed a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions match (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the most unique masters of the form was Satoshi Kon (sadly, he died of cancer in 2010 at 46). His films mix complex characterizations with a photo-realistic visual style; making me forget that I’m watching animation. Kon drew on genres not typically associated with anime, like adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (the limited series Paranoia Agent) and this 2001 character study.

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman interview a long-reclusive actress. As she reminisces on key events of her life and career, the director and the cameraman are pulled right into the events themselves. The narrative becomes more surreal as the line blurs between the actresses’ life and the lives of her film characters. Mind-blowing and thought-provoking, it is ultimately a touching love letter to 20th Century Japanese cinema.

The restored print on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition is a thing of beauty. Extras are scarce (brief interviews with 4 of the voice actors) but it’s great to have this gem in HD!

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

By Dennis Hartley

https://i0.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://i0.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.”

 

SIFF 2019: Fantastic Planet (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally  La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster.

Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing. SIFF is adding a unique twist: Seattle DJ “NicFit” will provide a live, “carefully curated soundtrack” of Flaming Lips tracks as accompaniment. Mushrooms not included.