Category Archives: Journalism

Tribeca 2024: Hacking Hate (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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Move over, Lisbeth Salandar…there’s a new hacker in town, and she’s stirring up a hornet’s nest of wingnuts. Simon Klose’s timely documentary follows award-winning Swedish journalist My Vingren as she meticulously constructs a fake online profile, posing as a male white supremacist. Her goal is to smoke out a possible key influencer and glean how he and others fit into right-wing extremist recruiting.

Vingren is like a one-woman Interpol; her investigation soon points her to U.S.-based extremist networks as well, leading her to consult with whistle-blower Anika Collier Navaroli (the former Twitter employee who was instrumental in getting Trump booted off the platform) and Imrab Ahmed (another one of Elon Musk’s least-favorite people, he was sued by the X CEO for exposing the rampant hate speech on the platform).

This isn’t a video game; considering the inherently belligerent nature of the extremist culture she is exposing, Vingren is taking considerable personal risk in this type of investigative journalism (she’s much braver than I am). Especially chilling is the shadowy figure at the center of her investigation, who is like a character taken straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel. In light of the high stakes of our own upcoming presidential election and the ancillary right-wing extremist threats, this could be the most important documentary of 2024.

Tribeca 2023: Rather (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Few journalists have had such a long and storied career as Dan Rather; long enough for several generations to claim their own reference point. At the risk of eliciting an eye-rolling “OK Boomer” from some quarters, mine is “I think we’re dealing with a bunch of thugs here, Dan!” (others of “a certain age” will recall that as Walter Cronkite’s reaction to watching his colleague getting roughed up by security on live TV while reporting from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention). For Gen Xers, he’s the inspiration for R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”, which is what a pair of assailants repeatedly asked Rather during a 1986 attack in New York. To Millennials, he’s a wry and wise nonagenarian with over 2 million Twitter followers.

As evidenced in Frank Marshall’s documentary, the secret to Rather’s longevity may be his ability to take a punch (literally or figuratively) and get right up with integrity intact. All the career highlights are checked, from Rather’s early days as a reporter in Dallas (where he came to national prominence covering the JFK assassination) to overseas reporting for CBS from the mid-to-late 60s (most notably in Vietnam), to taking over the coveted CBS Evening News anchor chair vacated by Cronkite in 1981, and onward. An inspiring warts-and-all portrait of a dogged truth-teller who is truly a national treasure.

Life through a lens: What We Left Unfinished (**½) & Whirlybird (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2021)

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Considering recent developments in Afghanistan, the release of Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished may prove to be timelier than the director intended. Her film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Kabul-based Afghan film industry, and how it fared during the multi-regime Communist era (from 1978 to 1991).

While it may seem counter-intuitive to consider a 13 year-long period of Communist rule as “the good old days”, the filmmakers who are profiled here view it as a golden age (of sorts)…especially relative to the subsequent years of Taliban rule from 1992 to 2001.

If there was an “up” side to the implementation of the Soviet model during that period, it was state funding of movies. Of course there was a substantial “down” side for filmmakers, in that they did not get final cut…every master print was subject to approval (read: butchering) by government censors before distribution.  Those willing to put up with caveats found they had an otherwise surprising amount of resources at their disposal.

Ghani uses restored footage from five unfinished projects to give a sampling of the types of films that were produced during that period. For the most part, they are standard melodramas; and while they contain elements reflecting Afghanistan’s historical turbulence and nods to Communist doctrine, none of them struck me as overtly political.

Ghani enlists writers, actors, producers and directors to reflect on how they finagled to keep the film industry alive during this period, despite the frequent regime changes (sometimes governmental shifts would occur mid-production, which could get awkward).

Some of the filmmakers’ stories are pretty wild. One recalls staging a battle scene in the desert wherein they had to use real bullets (the army provided them with weapons for the film, but didn’t have any blanks). When he called “cut”, he heard additional gunfire and quickly realized that actors and crew were being shot at by a small band of mujahedin, who had been drawn by the sound of their gunfire. They were eventually able to escape.

If you’re looking for the big picture-at 70 minutes Ghani’s film cannot convey the full complexity of Afghan art and politics; but as film preservation it has historical value. It’s not for all tastes, but I think diehard fans of international cinema should find it intriguing.

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide.

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I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour”. A great Sunday night show for the whole family.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Talk about helicopter parenting. Matt Yoda’s documentary Whirlybird is one of those “only in L.A.” stories; specifically the story of the Tur family…broadcast reporter Zoe (formerly Bob), her ex-wife/long-time professional colleague Marika Gerrard, and their two children James and Katy.

It’s tough to pigeonhole a film that runs the gamut from shocking footage of the 1992 L.A. riots and the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase to home movies of a happy mom-to-be carrying future NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. The best I can do for you is “Keeping up with the Kardashians meets Broadcast News.”

Although the “action news” format was established in the 70s, one can credit (or blame) news stringer/helicopter pilot Bob Tur (who transitioned to Zoe in 2014) and then-wife and camera operator Marika Gerrard with popularizing the sensationalist, God’s-eye iteration of “breaking news”…reporting from high aloft the murder and mayhem below.

Tur founded the independent Los Angeles News Service in the 80s, initially running his own camera in addition to doing the reporting. As Marika recalls, it wasn’t too long after she and Tur began courting that he encouraged her to learn how to shoot news footage. More often than not, “date nights” ended up with her tagging along with him to a crime scene, fire, or a car crash anyway, so Marika figured out early on that if she wanted time with Bob, her best bet was to take him up on his offer to be a professional partner as well.

Even once the couple began to build their family, the police scanner remained the soundtrack of their lives. Zoe recalls “driving 110 miles an hour” to get the jump on a breaking story…with her wife and kids in the car.

If that sounds like reckless behavior, Zoe would agree with you. While sheepish about speaking of herself in the third person, she now realizes “Bob” had an overabundance of testosterone. Bob also had anger management issues, as evidenced in outtakes of him berating both Marika and helicopter pilot Lawrence Welk III (I was reminded of the 2010 documentary Winnebago Man).

Nonetheless, the reportage that Tur and Gerrard did over the years adds up to an extraordinary documentation of key historical events in Los Angeles from the late 1980s through the late 1990s “as they happened” (e.g. that is Bob Tur’s voice you hear accompanying that horrific, now-iconic footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten nearly to his death on live television).

The director was given access to the couple’s archive of several thousand Beta tapes. As he plowed through the library, Yoda noticed that there was quite a bit of family footage mixed in among the plane crashes, riots, and police pursuits (Bob and Marika used the work camera for their home movies).

The couple’s marriage ended in 2003; Yoda interweaves family footage with career highlights to create a dual chronology of a city descending into chaos and a relationship becoming increasingly untenable. It’s not necessarily “a great Sunday night show for the whole family”…but it’s an absorbing watch and one of the top docs I have seen this year.

WHIRLYBIRD is streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and other platforms.

Blu-ray reissue: The Parallax View (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Parallax View (The Criterion Collection)

Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 “conspiracy a-go-go” thriller stars Warren Beatty, who delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

The new, restored 4K digital transfer is a revelation. The audio track retains the original mono mix, but is also a substantial upgrade from the 1999 Paramount DVD (which I think I’ve nearly worn out…if that’s possible with digital media). Extras include archival interviews from 1974 and 1995 with Pakula, a new program on DP Willis, and a new introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox. I’m awarding this package my highest rating: 4 tin foil hats!

Tribeca 2021: Larry Flynt for President (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)

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Director Nadia Szold’s wild documentary about the Hustler magazine publisher’s infamous 1983 bid for the White House makes Milos Forman’s 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt look like a Saturday morning cartoon.

An ever-polarizing public figure, Flynt (who died earlier this year) was paralyzed from the waist down after a would-be assassin shot him in 1978. After several years of painful recovery, Flynt began to incorporate more sociopolitical satire into Hustler, which led to his presidential campaign. He ran as a Republican (with a rather progressive agenda and a healthy sense of irony).

Szold had access to a trove of previously unreleased footage by a film crew that followed Flynt around on his campaign trail. She also documents his high-profile First Amendment court battle with religious Right demagogue Jerry Falwell. At turns hilarious and harrowing (harrowing in the sense of how Flynt’s purely performative flirtation with politics presaged Donald Trump and the MAGA cult).

Tribeca 2021: Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)

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Nothing against Ben Fong-Torres, but I approached this film with trepidation. “Please, god,” I thought to myself, “Don’t let ‘Fortunate Son’ be on the soundtrack.” Thankfully, there’s credence, but no Creedence in Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary, which despite the implications of its title is not another wallow in the era when being on the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered, man.

OK, there is some of that; after all, journalist and author Ben Fong-Torres’ venerable career began when he first wrote for Rolling Stone in 1968. By the following year he was hired as the editor and wrote many of the cover stories. Fong-Torres quickly showed himself to be not only an excellent interviewer, but a gifted writer. His journalistic approach was the antithesis to the gonzo stylists like Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson in that his pieces were never about him, yet still eminently personal and relatable.

Just like her subject, Kai’s portrait is multi-faceted, revealing aspects of Fong-Torres’ life outside of his profession I was not aware of (like his activism in the Asian-American community, and how it was borne of a heartbreaking family tragedy).

Blu-ray reissue: The Big Clock (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Big Clock – Arrow Academy Blu-ray (Region “B”)

I hesitate to tag John Farrow’s 1948 crime drama as a “film noir”, because it contains a fair amount of levity…but enough genre experts have labelled it as such for it to qualify, I suppose. Whatever you choose to call it will not detract from the fact that it is a marvelous film, from start to finish.

The story (adapted by Jonathan Latimer from Kenneth Fearing’s novel) centers on a harried “true crime” magazine editor (Ray Milland), who is scrambling to tie up loose ends at work so he can finally split town on a long overdue vacation with his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan). However, his ever-demanding boss (Charles Laughton) obstructs his plans at the last minute…and apparently for the last time, as it prompts Milland to announce his resignation and storm out of the office.

He ends up getting blind drunk with his boss’s mistress (Rita Johnson). Later that evening, she is murdered by Laughton-who craftily proceeds to frame Milland for the deed. A cleverly constructed game of wits ensues. Fabulous supporting cast; with Elsa Lanchester a standout as a kooky artist.

The image quality is spectacular (taken from original film elements). Arrow adds a generous helping of extras, including a rare hour-long 1948 radio dramatization by the Lux Radio Theatre.

SIFF 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider.

Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father).

The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).

Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2017)

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is on the money whenever he interjects  images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, they were produced by white liberals for other white liberals, who could pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (he was defining “virtue signalling” before it had a name). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top  that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although it is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin (self-admittedly) was not a movement activist in the literal sense, but was committed in the literary sense (present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator).

I was left saddened that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate. While we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never went away.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Any news that fits: Criterion reissues The Front Page *** & His Girl Friday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 28, 2017)

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Travel back with me now to the halcyon days of the chain-smoking star reporter…a time when men were men (and cracked wise) women were women (and cracked wiser), and fake news was but a colorfully enhanced version of the truth (as opposed to “alternative facts”). Actually, this particular version of “reality” existed largely within the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters.

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The granddaddy of the genre is Lewis Milestone’s 1931 screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, The Front Page. As Michael Sragow notes in his essay, included with Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of the film and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday:

[The Front Page] became famous, sometimes infamous, for its frankness about sleazy backroom politics and reckless, sensationalistic newspapers, and for its suggestive patter and profanity. It brought a crackling comic awareness of American corruption into popular culture, and it made rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue fashionable…

What did he say? “Profanity” in an American film from 1931? Well, this was “pre-Code” Hollywood, which is demarcated by the implementation of the 1930 Hays Code. Not strictly enforced by the major production studios until 1934, the Code set fairly strict guidelines on “morality” and message in films until it finally fizzed in 1968 (don’t laugh…could happen again).

That said, The Front Page seems creaky and tame by today’s standards, and its “rapid fire” dialog is like slow-motion compared to the machine-gun patter of the 1940 revamp (more on that in a moment). Still, its historical value is inarguable, making it a most welcome “bonus” feature.

Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay from Hecht and MacArthur’s play, with “additional dialogue” by Charles Lederer (who was later re-deployed to adapt the same source material into His Girl Friday). Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton lead the fine cast.

O’Brien plays veteran reporter Hildy Johnson, on his last day at a Chicago tabloid. Much to the chagrin of his boss (and long-time friend) Walter Burns (Menjou), he has given notice and is about to head off to marry his sweetheart Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and start a new career as a New York ad man.

However, fate and circumstance intervene when an irresistible “exclusive” falls into Hildy’s lap regarding the imminent jailhouse execution of an anarchist, whose sentencing may not have been determined so much in the interest of jurisprudence as it was to benefit city officials up for re-election (political corruption in Chicago-how’d they get that idea?).

Criterion touts this restoration of The Front Page to be the closest approximation to date of the director’s “optimum cut”. It turns out that the iteration we’ve been watching all these years (along with the copy stored at the Library of Congress) was the “foreign” version. In the early 30s, it apparently was not uncommon to shoot three different negatives; one destined for domestic audiences, and one each for British and “general foreign” distribution (I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this practice). As Sragow elaborates:

Cast and crew invariably saved their best efforts for the American version: the freshest, bounciest performances, the sharpest or most fluid camera work and staging, the keenest beats and cadences. For the other versions, filmmakers often rewrote scenes, substituting language and references that would be easier to grasp in other parts of the world. […] In 2014, the Academy set out to restore The Front Page from a 35 mm print that had been part of the Howard Hughes film collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. […] What’s most elating about Milestone’s preferred cut is not merely the restitution of more authentic language but the reclamation of more vibrant rhythms and images.

What he said-and kudos to Criterion for including it in this release.

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There’s nothing “creaky” about Howard Hawks’ perennially fresh and funny newsroom comedy His Girl Friday, which is of course the main feature of this Criterion Blu-ray reissue package. Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (not credited) adapted from the same Hecht and MacArthur stage version of The Front Page, but added some significant twists: pulling a gender switch on two of the primary characters, and modifying the backstory of a personal relationship.

In this version, veteran reporter Hildy is a female character (Rosalind Russell) who quits her job at a New York City paper, disappears for several months, then pops by the newsroom one day with a hot tip for ex-boss/ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant)-she’s off to Albany to marry and settle down with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As in The Front Page, Walter hates the idea of losing his star reporter (for personal and professional reasons).

In his heart of hearts, Walter (who admits that he wasn’t the best of husbands) doesn’t buy the idea that Hildy, a competitive, hard-boiled adrenaline junkie who enjoys nothing more than the challenge of getting the scoop on a hot story, has suddenly decided that settling down in Albany with a milquetoast insurance salesman is the life she prefers. And so he sets about scheming to win her back. At this point, the narrative converges with The Front Page (the subplot involving the condemned anarchist and the corrupt politicians).

What ensues is one of the most wonderfully played and rapidly-paced mashups of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, crime drama and social satire ever concocted this side of The Thin Man. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that director Howard Hawks already had two bonafide classic screwball comedies (Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) under his belt.

Something to observe in repeat viewings is how Hawks masterfully frames all his shots; specifically how he choreographs background action. The natural tendency is to focus on the overlapping repartee (delivered with such deftness and tight, precise pentameter that you could sync a metronome to it), but keep an eye out for sly sight gags that are easy to miss if you blink.

Something that stood out upon my most recent viewing was the nascent feminism of the piece. For a film of its time, it is unusual enough to see such a strong and self-assured female character, much less one so matter-of-factually presented as being on equal footing with her male peers as Hildy. Her fellow reporters look up to her because they all acknowledge her as their best and brightest. It’s incidental that she happens to be a woman. I view Russell’s inspired portrayal of Hildy as the prototype for future TV characters Mary Richards and Murphy Brown; I also see a lot of “her” in Holly Hunter’s memorable turn in Broadcast News.

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is stunning; I’ve never seen this film looking so good. The audio track (crucial in such a dialog-driven piece) is clean and crystal-clear (ditto for The Front Page, which was treated to a 4k transfer, in addition to its new restoration). Extras include an insightful new interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday, archival interviews with Howard Hawks, a new piece about writer Ben Hecht, radio adaptations of both films, and written essays about each film, presented as a faux-newspaper. The best reissue of 2017 so far.