Category Archives: Fantasy

Kirkegaard, Fran, & Ollie : Once Within a Time (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2023)

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Back in February of 2017, my dear mother passed away, at the age of 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for a number of years, the straw that ultimately claimed her (pancreatic cancer) was diagnosed mere weeks before she died. In fact, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight to Ohio turned into a grim race; near as I could figure, my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard.

Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her final days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that several days prior, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).

Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer spotting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brother were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with three words: “Trees are important.

I’ve been mulling over those words ever since. What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the very lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end of her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity” about The Things That Really Matter? Granted, it may not be as cinematic as “Rosebud”, but it’s at the very least a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan. If I’d been there, I might’ve responded with something profound, like “Nicely put.”

Those memories came flooding back to me like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist during the opening scene of Godfrey Reggio’s Once Within a Time (in theaters), when a central figure in the narrative first appears …Gaia, Mother Earth, Great Mother, Tellus, the Log Lady (her names are legion). I couldn’t fathom where this was going, but intuited that She was going to be Important.

Billed as “a bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one”, this visually arresting 58-minute feature (co-directed by Jon Kane) represents an 8-year labor of love for Reggio (now 83), who is primarily known for his “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi). He re-enlisted his Qatsi trilogy collaborator Philip Glass to score the project. Glass’ score is quite lovely (and restrained-I know he has his detractors) with wonderful vocalizing provided by Sussan Deyhim.

Ostensibly aimed at a young audience, the film (a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Tron, 2001, and Princess Mononoke) utilizes a collage of visual techniques (stop-motion, puppetry, shadow play, etc.) with echoes of George Melies, Lotte Reiniger, Karel Zeman , Rene Laloux, George Pal, Luis Buñuel, The Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.

A small group of children are spirited away to a multiverse that vacillates (at times uneasily) between the lush green world, future visions of a bleak and barren landscape, and the rabbit hole of cyberspace; surreal vignettes abound.

A wolf pack gathers around and begins to bay at a huge smart phone displaying a scene from George Melies’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. A monkey wearing a VR headset swings along power lines in a post-apocalyptic landscape. In a sequence recalling “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in Fantasia, emojis leap from smart phones, transform into amorphous figures (resembling Teletubbies), and begin to gyrate in unison. An oversized wooden marionette with a b&w photo of Greta Thunberg for a face lumbers about for a bit amongst the children, and Mike Tyson has a cameo that I couldn’t even begin to describe (I couldn’t get this high).

An occasional visual quote from Reggio’s earlier films suggests that this can be viewed as “a child’s guide to the Qatsi trilogy”. This is reinforced by reiteration of pet themes from those films; namely humankind’s callous indifference to nature’s delicate balance, and the ever-increasing encroachment of the technocracy on society (the latter which is all but complete).

Those themes seem a tad dark for a “children’s film”, but Reggio’s vision here is not completely devoid of hope for the future. On the other hand, neither does he tie everything up neatly, ending with a title card that asks: “Which age is this: The sunset or the dawn?”

So what does it all mean?

In a recent interview, Reggio said of his intention:

I wanted a piece without words, so that it may be perhaps accessible to a lot of people. Something that was at once linear and non-linear, ambiguous and clear. At the same time, I wanted to leave you, not with an answer, but with a question.

Not helping. Although…Reggio at least sheds some light on Mike Tyson’s appearance:

So let me make a long story short. The crew said: If you get him, we can’t afford him. Anyway, I got a notice from his partner saying meet us at Robert De Niro’s hotel downtown. Mike wants to talk to you. He’s got a few guys with him. So I talked to him for half an hour. Mike says ,“Motherfucker, you’re speaking right to my subconscious.”

A cleansing moment of clarity. As Ella sang, I think I’m beginning to see the light.

And as my mama always said, Trees are important.

Tribeca 2022: Deep Sea (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2023)

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Xiaopeng Tian’s colorful 3-D animation fantasy follows the dreamlike journey of a melancholy little girl named Shenxiu (voiced by Wang Ting Wen) after she falls overboard during a storm while on an ocean cruise with her father, stepmother, and baby brother. Shenxiu longs to reconnect with her biological mother, who she hasn’t seen or heard from since her parents’ divorce. Akin to the little boy in Where the Wild Things Are, Shenxiu encounters strange and wondrous characters that embody her troubled emotional state; anthropomorphic creatures that also serve as avatars for the people who are closest to her. An imaginative and family-friendly adventure in the vein of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

SIFF 2023: Irati (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2023)

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Writer-director Paul Urkijo Alijo’s fantasy is set in Moorish Spain, with pagans, Christians, and the odd mythical creature engaging in various set-tos in the time of Charlemagne’s domination of Europe. On the plus side: impressive sets and lush photography; but the uneven blend of historical fiction with sword and sorcery never quite gels. The film strives to be an adult fairy tale like John Boorman’s Excalibur but falls about one grail short of its quest.

SIFF 2023: Lonely Castle in the Mirror (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2023)

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The Breakfast Club meets Alice in Wonderland in Keiichi Hara’s anime, adapted from Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel. Seven middle-school students (all misfits) are given access to a magic castle via their mirrors. Once there, a “wolf girl” informs them the first to find a hidden key will be granted one wish. As they become acquainted, they become less competitive and more empathetic toward each other. Overlong for a simple narrative, but a lovely message for kids.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 18, 2023)

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With Saint Patrick’s celebrations in full swing this weekend, 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. The Commitments can be seen as a riff on Parker’s 1980 film Fame; swapping the locale from New York City 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 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 publicly in decades. 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 if 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 fairly 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 (he waxes poetically about the aforementioned film in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). Lovely cinematography 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 best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it).

Writer-director Martin McDonagh (who deftly juggles “fook” as a noun, adverb, super adverb and adjective) re-enlisted In Bruges stars Gleeson and Farrell as the leads for his Oscar-nominated 2022 dramedy The Banshees of Inisherin (also recommended!).

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Into the West – A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors, 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, as did Brenda Fricker, who snagged Best Supporting Actress as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s work as young Christy; he gives an equally impressive 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 shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is 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 well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with political undercurrents. The top-notch cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

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Older Than Ireland With age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they might smack you. Not that there is violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is consensus among interviewees (aged 100-113) 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 moving and entertaining pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices, watch this wondrous film and plug yourself into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

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The Quiet Man – I’ll admit to never having been a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s perfect in this John Ford classic 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 out to 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 succession of characters that seem to have popped out of one of the 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 something in Moore’s hand-drawn animation that I find sorely lacking in the computer-generated “product” glutting multiplexes these days: genuine heart.

Movie night at the mini-mart: Top 10 Little People Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 18, 2023)

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In the canyons of your mind
I will wander through your brain
To the ventricles of your heart, my dear
I’m in love with you again

– from “Canyons of Your Mind,” by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Earlier this week, I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter (as one does)  and noticed that Fantastic Voyage was trending. Initially, I  was puzzled as to why that nearly 60 year-old film was on the radar. Then I saw “Raquel Welch” trending, and thought “Uh-oh…another pop culture icon of my youth has diminished and gone into the West.”

There’s a 65% chance that I couldn’t tell you where I left my goddam keys,  but I have vivid memories of attending a Saturday matinee showing of Fantastic Voyage at Theater #1 (Fort Wainwright, Alaska) and becoming mesmerized by the sight of Raquel Welch cavorting about the movie screen in a skin-tight scuba outfit for 2 hours.

Being only 10 in 1966,  I could not articulate exactly what it was about this vision that captured my imagination, any more than I could explain the similar fascination I had for watching Diana Rigg cavort about the TV screen in a skin-tight leather outfit (on the odd occasion my parents would let me stay up to watch The Avengers).

Of course, Raquel Welch starred in a number of memorable films; Hannie Caulder, Kansas City Bomber, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, The Last of Shelia, Lady in Cement, Bedazzled, The Magic Christian, and One Million Years B.C. round off my top 10. But Fantastic Voyage holds a special place in the ventricles of my heart.

So in memoriam to Ms. Welch (and our first encounter) I thought I’d take time out to thank all the little people-in alphabetical order:

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The Borrower Arrietty – Based on Mary Norton’s 1952 novel, The Borrowers, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s enchanting 2010 anime follows the travails of a family of 4-inch tall people who live under the floorboards of a country home. Teenager Arrietty (voiced by Mirai Shida) and her parents survive by “borrowing” items from the humans who live upstairs; items that they won’t necessarily miss (a cube of sugar yields a year’s worth of sweetener for their tea).

The tricky part, of course, is absconding with the provisions without attracting attention. Once Arrietty is spotted by the young boy who lives in the house, life for her family becomes complicated. This is a lovely film, beautifully animated. The screenplay was adapted by Studio Ghibli’s master director, Hayao Miyazaki, with Keiko Niwa.

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?!  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  well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson later directed another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.

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Fantastic Planet – Lest you begin to think that every film on this list is “family-friendly”, think again. I wouldn’t show this one to the kids (unless they’re the kids from Village of the Damned).

Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally released as 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 adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster.

Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing.

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Fantastic Voyage – This  Cold War thriller/sci-fi/action hybrid starring Raquel Welch (poured into a  body suit), could only have been concocted in the 1960s. A scientist from behind the Iron Curtain sustains a serious head injury while being “brought in from the cold” by the CIA. Now it’s up to a team of scientists to operate on the life-threatening blood clot…from inside the man’s body (thanks to a top-secret government project that enables humans to be miniaturized to the size of a blood cell). The catch is that the team can only be miniaturized for one hour max (tick…tick…tick).

Welch is joined in the world’s tiniest lil’ submarine by Steven Boyd, Donald Pleasance, Arthur Kennedy and William Redfield. Richard Fleisher directed, and the film picked up Oscars (for art/set direction and special effects). The film undoubtedly inspired Joe Dante’s 1987 sci-fi comedy, Innerspace. BTW, director Fleischer’s Uncle Dick directed the next film on my list (OK, I’ll say it: Small world…).

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Gulliver’s Travels (1939) – “There’s a giant on the beach!” Filmmakers have been trying to get this one right for over 100 years (the earliest version was made in 1902, the most recent was 2010), but for me, Dick Fleischer’s 1939 animated musical remains the definitive movie adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel.

Clocking in at just a little over an hour, it’s the breezy tale of a sailor named Gulliver, who washes up on the shores of the fantastical land of Lilliput. At first, the tiny Lilliputians aren’t sure how they should react to this mysterious “giant”, but he proves to be a valuable asset in helping to resolve brewing tensions between them and their neighbors in the equally diminutive kingdom of Blefiscu. A visual and musical delight (and you’ve gotta love a pacifist hero).

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, this film vehicle for The Beatles is more fluffy. Ringo is chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice; hilarity ensues. But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the proper mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

There are a few good zingers in Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s screenplay; but the biggest delights come from the Beatles’ music, and director Richard Lester’s flair for visual inventiveness. Which brings me to the reason I included this film on my list…a vignette entitled “The Exciting Adventure of Paul on the Floor”, wherein Paul accidentally receives an overdose of a mad scientist’s “shrinking” serum. It’s a small (*ahem*) section of the film, but it’s memorable.

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Honey, I Shrunk the Kids –Rick Moranis stars as a suburban absent-minded professor-type who invents a shrinking device. Before he has a chance to work out the bugs, a freak accident reduces his two kids and the next-door neighbor’s two kids into spoon-sized humans. Hilarity (and unexpected poignancy) ensues, as the four shrunken victims encounter assorted microcosmic terrors in the backyard while Dad frantically brainstorms a solution.

Special effects are imaginative and well-done. While this is  Disney (the original working title was The Teenie Weenies), it’s not as twee as one might expect. This was the directorial debut for Joe Johnston, who would later make the outstanding family drama October Sky.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man – Always remember, never mix your drinks. And, as we learn from Jack Arnold’s 1957 sci-fi classic, you should never mix radiation exposure with insecticide…because that will make you shrink, little by little, day by day. That’s what happens to Scott Carey (Grant Williams), much to the horror of his wife (Randy Stuart) and his stymied doctors.

Unique for its time in that it deals primarily with the emotional, rather than fantastical aspects of the hapless protagonist’s transformation. To be sure, the film has memorable set-pieces (particularly Scott’s chilling encounters with a spider and his own house cat), but there is more emphasis on how the dynamics of the couple’s relationship changes as Scott becomes more diminutive.  The denouement presages the existential finale of The Quiet Earth.

In the fullness of time, some have gleaned sociopolitical subtext in Richard Matheson’s screenplay; or at least a subtle thumb in the eye of 1950s conformity. Matheson adapted from his novel. He also wrote the popular I Am Legend (adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth , The Omega Man  and the eponymous 2007 film).

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The Indian in the Cupboard – Veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz teamed up with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison for this light fantasy about a boy and a tiny Native American warrior who lives in his cupboard. Omri (Hal Scardino) receives a small antique cupboard as a birthday gift. A friends gives him a plastic Indian play figure, which he puts in the cupboard. His mother (Lindsay Crouse) digs up a family heirloom key, which enables Omri to secure his new toy.

There’s something about the combo of cupboard, key and figurine that results in the appearance of a living, breathing, toy-sized human named Little Bear (played by Native-American rapper Litefoot), who has time-traveled from 1761 (don’t ask). Soon he has two equally diminutive companions, a cowboy (David Keith), and a bumbling WW I English soldier (Steve Coogan). The film occasionally lags, but its sweet, gentle tone and positive message (promoting tolerance) isn’t the worst thing you could share with the kids.

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The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb – This film, on the other hand, is probably about the worst “little people” fairy tale you could let the kids watch before bedtime. Closer to Eraserhead than, say, Pinocchio, this is one of those oddball films that nearly defies description.

English slum dwellers Ma and Pa Thumb (Deborah Collard and Nick Upton) are shocked  when Ma gives birth to an infant you could fit in your pocket. Still, the proud parents soon find themselves showering their adorable (if freakish) little Tom with love and affection. Unfortunately, this happy family scenario is rudely interrupted when Tom is kidnapped by black-clad henchmen, who spirit him away to a truly creepy genetic lab. Tom’s secret adventures are only beginning.

Writer-director Dave Borthwick utilizes stop-motion techniques, combining actors with claymation to create an overall unsettling mood. It almost plays like a silent film; any “dialog” is unintelligible gibberish. All of the actors employ the same bizarrely mannered facial tics and line delivery, which are strangely reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade. It’s weird, yet compelling.

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2023)

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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

As if the mid-winter blues weren’t enough, there’s been an odd confluence of celestial events recently – a close encounter with a hurtling asteroid, an eerie green comet lighting up the night skies, and the mysterious appearance of a high altitude “spy balloon” the size of three metro buses that has the conspiracy nuts twisting themselves into pretzels. Not that I believe in heavenly portents, but I am feeling the need for some “cinema therapy” right about now.

With that in mind, here are 12 films I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; the ones I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, 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, Black Orpheus fully engages the senses. 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 the place.

You may be scratching your head as to why I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but Black Orpheus is graced by one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema; which always assures me that everything is going to be alright.

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The Dish – This 2000 Australian sleeper dramatizes the story behind the live televised images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969. The worldwide broadcast was facilitated by 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 yucks; the re-enactment of the telecast is genuinely stirring. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on the charming 1997 dramedy The Castle (recommended!).

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre labelled Cinéma du look (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional).

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 recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules bootlegging the concert, 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) to a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) confides to Jules. Slick, stylish and thoroughly engaging.

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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 an improvisational feel; and feels as fresh and innovative as when it first hit theaters all those years ago. I still 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 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 just shy of 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” funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s polar 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 manages to be life-affirming. Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins (who would later write and direct Foul Play and 9 to 5) wrote the screenplay. Outstanding soundtrack by Cat Stevens.

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Local Hero –This low-key, 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 I have become  emotionally attached to, usually for reasons I can’t completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in their twilight years with disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpected deep bond turns into a transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver mesmerizing performances. I feel an urge to 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 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 universally relatale. A charmer.

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

Audiences weaned on “reality TV” 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 began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings, 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 – W.S. Van Dyke’s delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) never gets old for me. Story takes a backseat to the repartee between private investigator (and 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 imitations; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

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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 attempted to compile a Top 10 list of my all-time favorite films (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at an empty page for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m certain Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Now, attempting to describe this film is something else altogether.

If I told you it’s about an angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin in a trench coat, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and follows her home, wallows 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 told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh nervously and say, “Oh, look at the time.” Of course, there is more to it-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.

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”.

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.