Category Archives: Jazz Musicians

Blu-ray reissue: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 10, 2021)

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Kino Classics/Indie Collect)

Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a fascinating and colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, et.al. at the peak of their powers.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day. If you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching, and Stern obliges. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

Indie Collect’s 4 K restoration pops with vivid primary colors. The audio quality is outstanding. Extras include an essay about the making of the film by jazz critic Nate Chinen, an absorbing feature-length 2011 documentary by Shannah Laumeister Stern called Bert Stern: Original Madman (Stern was a fascinating, Zelig-like figure-I had no inkling of his achievements outside of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which is the only film he ever directed) and a new audio commentary by music journalist Natalie Weiner. A terrific package.

Cinema Therapy: The sequel

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2020)

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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 Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal

Man…2020 has been one long, strange century.

As Howard Beale once said, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad.”  Four score and seven years ago (back in March), when portions of America went into a pandemic-driven lock down and our nation turned its lonely eyes to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms in a desperate search for binge-worthy distraction, I published a post sharing 10 of my favorite “therapy movies”.

Now its October (where have the decades gone?) and things are…unsettled. The news cycle of this past week has been particularly trying for those of us who follow that sort of thing (which I assume to be “most of us” who gravitate to this corner of the blogosphere).

With that in mind, here are 10 more 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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Amelie (Amazon Prime, Hulu) – Yes, I know this one has its share of detractors-but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film has stolen my heart for life.

Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously like her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You will have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts.

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Casablanca (Amazon Prime) – For me, Michael Curtiz’s 1942 treatise on love, war and character is a textbook “movie movie” …cinematic comfort food, if you will. In other words, I don’t require it to make sense on every level. Whether it’s 100% believable as a World War II adventure, or whether the characters are cardboard archetypes, or whether it looks like it was filmed on a sound stage …all moot issues in a true “movie movie”.

What does matter to me about this film is the romance, intrigue, selfless sacrifice, Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” ever, that goodbye at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about it?

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The Dish (Amazon Prime) – This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia 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 Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I would recommend: The Castle (1997).

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Harold and Maude (Amazon Prime) – 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 they 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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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (DVD only) – Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a fascinating and colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc. and the performances are outstanding.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day. If you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching, and Stern obliges. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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My Neighbor Totoro (Amazon Prime) – 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 (a furry, whiskered amalgam of every cuddly toy you ever cozied up to 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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North By Northwest (Amazon Prime) – I’m hard-pressed to find a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual mastery than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated by countless Hitchcock wannabes).

Although I never tire of the crop-dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging Mt. Rushmore set piece, my favorite part is the dining car scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Bernard Hermann’s score is one of his finest.

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Pow Wow Highway (DVD only) – A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha.

Philbert decides that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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The Man Who Would Be King (Amazon Prime) – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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The Ritz (Amazon Prime) – I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to scream their lines?)-but I make exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who seeks asylum in what he assumes will be the last place that the hit men would think of to look for him-a bath house. And yes, campy hilarity ensues.

The cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with an “interesting” voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately upstaged by Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to not be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing matter through my nose.

Twitch and shout: Motherless Brooklyn (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2019)

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Stanley Kubrick once stated, “I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.” I suspect that Edward Norton, the writer/director/star of Motherless Brooklyn, enthusiastically concurs.

Norton’s film, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous 1999 detective novel, qualifies as one such “slow starter”. At 144 minutes, it gives the audience ample time to ponder grace notes and soft tones; and (for the most part) avoids pounding you over the head with plot points and suspense hooks. Movies of that sort are hard to find these days.

I have not read the source novel; but I gather it is a complex murder mystery set in contemporary New York, with a largely internalized narrative from the perspective of its protagonist. Norton shifts the time period to the 1950s and channels most of the complexity into his performance as Lionel Essrog, a private dick afflicted by Tourette Syndrome. Naturally, he awards himself a juicy character role and tackles it with aplomb.

Lionel works as a P.I. for an agency headed by hard-boiled war vet Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Minna is not only Lionel’s boss, but his best friend and mentor. Minna is one of the few people who doesn’t (whether consciously or unconsciously) stigmatize him for his uncontrollable physical and vocal tics (Lionel’s co-workers call him “Freakshow”). Minna recognizes that certain ancillaries of Lionel’s condition- to wit, a photographic memory and an ability to laser in on minutiae are ideal attributes for a private investigator.

One day, Minna asks Lionel and another P.I. from the agency to accompany him for a meet he has with some shadowy individuals. Lionel is instructed to listen in on the conversation from a phone booth while his partner stands by in the car. Minna keeps his cards close to his vest as to what it’s all about but makes it obvious that he has the pair of them tagging along as backup in case the meeting goes south in a hurry. Long story short, the meeting goes south in a hurry, and before the P.I.s can intercede Minna ends up dead.

The mystery is afoot (if it’s a yard). Lionel navigates a crooked maze of avarice and corruption that runs through smoky Harlem jazz clubs, Brooklyn tenement slums and straight to the rotten core of The Big Apple (I think I missed my calling as a pulp writer).

Frankly, the mystery (while absorbing) takes a backseat to the character study and the noir-ish 1950s atmosphere (helped by nice work from cinematographer Dick Pope, whose credits include many Mike Leigh films as well as the 1990 cult favorite Dark City).

But Lionel is certainly an interesting study, augmented by a committed performance from Norton, who is one of the finest actors of his generation. As a director, Norton is rock solid if not particularly stylish. Also in the cast: Alec Baldwin (as a very Trumpian New York real estate developer), Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

It’s tempting to dub this an East Coast Chinatown, but it doesn’t “get under your skin” the same way. Still, Norton deserves credit for going against the grain of conventional modern Hollywood “product”, by making us lean in again and pay attention to the details.

…one more thing

So you’re not up for schlepping to the theater? Here are five vintage New York City-based noirs and neo-noirs that are well worth your while and readily available for home viewing:

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Dog Day Afternoon (available for rent from Warner Brothers On Demand) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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Killer’s Kiss (Criterion Collection Blu-ray) – It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time.

But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s).

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

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Sweet Smell of Success (available on TCM On Demand) – Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography (and use of various New York City locales) is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

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The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (available on Hitz and Prime Video) – In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

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Taxi Driver (available on Netflix) – Equal parts film noir, character study and sociopolitical commentary, this was one of the most important (if disturbing) films to emerge from the American film renaissance of the 1970s, due in no small part to the artistic trifecta of directing, writing  and acting  talents involved  (Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro, respectively).

De Niro plays alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who takes a night job as a cabbie. Prowling New York City’s meanest streets, Travis kills time between fares fantasizing about methods he might use to eradicate the seedy milieu he observes night after night to jibe with his exacting world view of How Things Should Be. It’s truly unnerving to watch as it becomes more and more clear that Travis is the proverbial ticking time bomb. His eventual homicidal catharsis still has the power to shock and is not for the squeamish.

The outstanding supporting cast includes a then-teenage Jodie Foster (nominated for an Oscar), Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks. The film’s memorable score is by the late Bernard Herrmann (it was one of his final projects).

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

Blu-ray reissue: Stormy Monday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Stormy Monday – Arrow Video Blu-ray (Region “B”)

I have to admit, I geeked out a little when I heard that Mike Figgis’ tightly-scripted, gorgeously-photographed 1988 Brit-noir (his feature directorial debut) was finally getting the high-def home video treatment that it so richly deserves.

Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). Right about the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks begin to fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated.

This is one of my favorite 80s sleepers; a criminally under-seen and underrated gem. Arrow’s sparkling transfer is a revelation; a great showcase for cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work here, which rates among his best. Extras include an interesting “then and now” tour of the Newcastle film locations.

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime?

Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943.

While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg).

While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act.

Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer).

A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.

Sour notes: Max Rose **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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“Have you heard about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” For better or worse, that’s the best line in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis’ first starring vehicle since Peter Chelsom’s 1995 sleeper Funny Bones.

Not that Max Rose is intended to be a comedy…far from it. Writer-director Daniel Noah’s film has much more gravity (ahem) than that timeworn groaner may infer.

Lewis is the titular character, a retired jazz pianist grieving over the recent death of his wife (Claire Bloom, relegated to flashbacks and the odd hallucination). Understandably, Max is a little morose (endless static shots of a brooding, stone-faced Lewis ensure that we “get” that).

Even his sunny-side up granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) can barely get him to crack a smile. Again, Max did just lose his wife of 60 years; yet some deeply buried injury seems to be tugging at him.

Max’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral turns into an oddly self-deprecating rant, alarming both Annie and his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak). Soon thereafter, Max has a health scare while alone at home that prompts The Talk (the one we all dread…about assisted living).

Max reluctantly acquiesces and checks in to a nursing home, but remains stubbornly aloof toward staff and fellow residents, until he gets liquored up one night with a posse of lively codgers (Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver).

Defenses down, Max now opens up about his deeper hurt, something he discovered about his wife’s past while sorting through her personal effects after her death. He realizes the only way he’s going to have closure is to go meet face-to-face with an involved party.

Despite the bevy of acting talent on board, this film (an uneven mash-up of The Descendents with The Sunshine Boys) ultimately feels like a squandered opportunity. Lewis has proved himself to be a capable enough dramatic actor in the past (particularly in The King of Comedy, Arizona Dream, and the aforementioned Funny Bones), but here his performance flirts with mawkishness.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was doing his best with the sappy script. There are good moments; a protracted scene between Lewis and the always interesting Dean Stockwell hints at what could have been, but is not enough to raise the film above its steady level of “meh”.

Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

Let’s get lost again: Low Down ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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I will admit being unfamiliar with jazz pianist Joe Albany prior to watching Jeff Preiss’ fact-based drama Low Down, yet the late musician’s career trajectory seems depressingly familiar. Credited as a be-bop pioneer, he made his bones in the 1940s, accompanying the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, he suffered an early “lost period” due to heroin, and spent most of the 50s and 60s chasing the dragon and collecting ex-wives.

He came out of seclusion in the 70s, recording a number of albums through the decade (still battling smack). He died alone, in 1988. Oddly enough, that was the same year trumpeter Chet Baker died. Baker, whose career was beset by similar woes, was profiled in Bruce Weber’s outstanding 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. One of its most compelling elements was the moody, noirish cinematography…by a Mr. Jeff Preiss.

Preiss’ film (which marks his feature-length directing debut) covers a 3-year period of Albany’s life in the mid-70s, when he was living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his teenage daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). Albany (John Hawkes) is struggling to stay focused on the work, jamming with his trumpet-playing buddy Hobbs (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, giving us a taste of his first instrument). Amy is cheer leading for her Dad, doing her best to keep him on track.

Speaking of tracks, a surprise visit from his parole officer reveals Dad isn’t quite holding things together, and he’s whisked off to stir. Amy goes to stay with her grandmother (Glenn Close) until Joe is released. Dad still has issues. Amy tries to keep sunny, but it’s tough to be Pollyanna when your social circle is surging with hookers, junkies, drug dealers and, er, porno star dwarves (Peter Dinklage!).

The screenplay (by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien) is based on Albany’s memoir about life with her father. Albany’s recollections about the extended family of eccentrics she encountered inject the film with a Tales of the City vibe. The naturalistic performances and Preiss’ cinema verite approach also recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama, The Panic in Needle Park, an episodic character study about a community of junkies.

Some may find the deliberate pacing stupefying, waiting for something to “happen”, but as John Lennon sang, “life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Taken as a slice of life, Low Down just lets it happen…improvising on grace notes while keeping it in perfect time.