Category Archives: Movie Movie

Blu-ray reissue: A Little Romance (***1/2)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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A Little Romance – Warner Archives

This 1979 comedy-drama from George Roy Hill (with a screenplay adapted from a Patrick Cauvin novel by Allan Burns) is best described as a puppy-love Before Sunset.

A 13-year-old movie-obsessed French boy with an above-average IQ (Thelonious Bernard) Meets Cute with a 13-year-old American girl with an above-average IQ (Diane Lane) on a movie set in Paris. They encounter a grandfatherly rapscallion (a hammy Laurence Olivier) who convinces them that the only way to affirm their love is to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset. The trio hit the road to Venice-with authorities in pursuit (alerted by the kids’ concerned parents).

This is a wonderful film; warm, funny, and endearing. Full of great little touches, like in the opening scene where Bernard is watching an American western dubbed in French. The film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In a later scene, he and Lane happen into a theater showing The Sting (obvious in-jokes for movie buffs, as both of those films were directed by Hill!). Also, in the opening scene Bernard snatches the poster for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on his way out and gets chased down the street by the theater manager…an homage to the opening scene in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

Warner Archives’ Blu-ray is bare bones (only one extra feature, “Remembering Romance with Diane Lane” which I have not got around to watching yet) but the transfer looks to have been taken from the best elements available (if not  actually “restored”). The audio is presented in the original 2.0 mono, but with DTS-HD Master Audio enhancement.

Primal doubts and all: Tommaso (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2020)

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The artist is the medium between his fantasies and the rest of the world.

 — Federico Fellini

There are few tougher sells to moviegoers than a film that simmers in the navel-gazing angst of a creatively blocked filmmaker. Yet it has become a venerable sub-genre you can trace at least as far back as Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea plays a director of populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road masquerading as a penniless railroad tramp. His crash-course in “social realism” becomes more than he bargained for. What did he expect? I mean, talk about “bitching in Paradise”…am I right?

As I noted in my 2013 review of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (aka The Great Beauty), a drama regarding an acclaimed novelist who is weathering an existential crisis:

Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.

While The Great Beauty is not about a film maker, it is nonetheless a direct descendant of Federico Fellini’s . Fellini’s 1963 drama about a creatively blocked director stewing over his next project offered a groundbreaking take on the “blocked artist” trope. With a non-linear narrative and flights of fantasy, it injected the “metaphysical” into the “meta”.

It was outrageously over-the-top and completely self-indulgent (especially for 1963), but Fellini’s film managed to strike a chord with audiences and critics. That is not an easy trick to pull off. In a 2000 retrospective on the film, Roger Ebert offered this explanation:

Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.

It also was (and remains) a hugely influential work. Films like Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) are a few of the more notable works with strong echoes of 8½.

Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso [now playing nationally in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee] is the latest descendant of ; although it offers a less fanciful and decidedly more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is certainly no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is (to say the least) a troubled, troubled man.

Tommaso is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and 3 year-old daughter Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara). At first glance, Tommaso leads an idyllic life; he has ingratiated himself by taking Italian lessons from a private tutor and appears to be a fixture in his neighborhood, cheerfully going about his daily errands with the unhurried countenance of a native local.

However, as we are given more time to observe Tommaso’s home life, there is increasing evidence of trouble in Paradise. Aside from the classic schisms that tend to occur in May-December relationships, Tommaso and Nikki obviously struggle with some cultural differences. Tommaso is also on edge because he is working on a storyboard for his next film (with elements that recall The Revenant) but can’t decide what he wants it to “say”.

The angst really kicks in when Tommaso attends an AA meeting. And then another, and another. While these scenes (i.e. monologues) are somewhat static and are potential deal-breakers for some viewers, they are key in communicating Tommaso’s inner turmoil.

Of course, the question becomes…do you care? Is this all just more of that “Pottery Barn angst” that I mentioned earlier? Dude…you have a beautiful young wife and an adorable little girl, you’re slumming in Rome, you’re an artist who makes his own schedule…and all you do is whinge and moan about how your life sucks, meow-meow woof-woof. Oh, please!

On the other hand, keep in mind this is an Abel Ferrara film. Historically, Ferrara does not churn out “light” fare. If you have seen China Girl, Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Addiction, The Funeral, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, et.al.-you know he is a visceral and uncompromising filmmaker. What I’m suggesting is, don’t give up on this too early; stay with it, give it some time to stew (I confess- it took me two viewings to “get there”).

The main impetus for sticking with the film (which ultimately shares more commonalities with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life than with ) is to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2019

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 28, 2019)

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As the year closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2019. Per usual I present them alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77-year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

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Dolemite is My Name – This film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a biopic about the late cult comedian and film maker Rudy Ray Moore to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who co-scripted Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic) the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety. While it doesn’t tell the complete story, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.  (Full review)

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

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The Edge of Democracy– Latin American countries have a long history as ever-simmering cauldrons of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something even more insidious at play in her country these days than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of her predecessor, the wildly popular progressive reformer Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

The real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during these events. This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; “we” have more in common with Brazil than you might think.  (Full review)

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The Irishman – If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so funny. “Funny” how? It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!  (Full review)

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MonosLord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).   (Full review)

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Putin’s Witnesses – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he “campaigns” for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history.  (Full review)

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This is Not Berlin Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Millennium Actress – Shout! Factory

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

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

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

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

The filth and the funny: Dolemite Is My Name (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2019)

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When I was in the 6th Grade at Ft. Wainwright Junior High in Alaska, everyone in class was assigned to choose, memorize and recite a Robert Service poem (I’m assuming this is a uniquely Alaskan rite of passage…although I can’t speak for public school traditions in the Yukon Territories). As most Robert Service poems go on longer than the Old Testament, this is not a casual assignment. My choice… “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

Then his lips went in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell…and that one is Dan McGrew.”

There’s a lot more to it, involving a gal named Lou and how this miner dude (“fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear”) gallivants into the local saloon like Rocky Racoon lookin’ for trouble but I think I probably chose it because it gave me an opportunity to work “blue” in front of the class without being admonished by the teacher.

Flash-forward to my junior year of high school. Specifically, that is when I bought an LP called Dolemite for President completely on a whim (OK…the somewhat prurient nature of the album cover and the fact that they kept it behind the counter may have initially piqued my interest). I was also really into comedy albums at the time, and the record store clerk assured me that this obscure comic Rudy Ray Moore was a laugh riot.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I smuggled it home (I definitely did not want my parents to see the album cover, and intuitively figured it would be wise to listen with headphones). The track list was intriguing; with cuts like “Dance of the Freaks”, “Farting Contest”, “Long Island Duck”, “Sit in Your Mama’s Lap” (you can ah…Google the rest).

Side 1 opens with Moore in character as presidential hopeful “Dolemite”, who gives an expletive-laden campaign speech touting his (very!) progressive platform (inspiration for Bullworth?) From a stylistic standpoint it was a fairly standard-issue standup monologue.

But the next cut, “Stack-A-Lee”, was…poetry.

Billy said “Stack? You’re takin’ my money, so get on your knees and pray
With your life…you’re gonna have to pay.”
Stack said “Billy…are you for real? I want you to listen, and listen well
I’m the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell!”

I wasn’t able to contextualize “why” at the time, but it somehow reminded me of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (although, the miner loaded for bear didn’t refer to himself as “the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell” while calling out Dan Mcgrew).

Most bits on the album turned out to be in rhymes. Filthy, dirty rhymes. I laughed and laughed and became a Rudy Ray Moore fan. He was fresh and original; and his incorporation of long-form verse was more developed than “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” Like Redd Foxx meets The Last Poets (or Robert Service with Tourette’s).

Flash-forward 47 years (jeezus) and I’m doing background research for my review of the 2019 Moore biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. I was surprised to learn from the film that Moore’s rhyming style was not 100% “original”, after all. Rather, it was rooted in an African American oral tradition called “toasting” (not to be confused with “Here’s to your health!”). I came across this enlightening 2004 University at Buffalo news release:

“Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition,” a book collected and compiled by SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson of the University at Buffalo, is back for a second go ’round. […]

The book collects a popular form of African American literature and folk poetry known as “toasts.” For 30 years, it carried the reputation of a “stone cold classic,” mightily praised by critics, cultural historians, musicians, poets and general-interest readers alike. The book includes a new CD of Jackson’s original field recording of the toasts in the book.

“Toasts are just one aspect of a rich tradition of verbal arts in black culture,” Jackson says. “Public performance of rhyming verse has ancient African roots. And we see it now in rap and hip-hop, which are a mix of African American, Caribbean and several other traditions.

“Toasts are the starting point for rap,” he says, “both in the poetry itself and the way it was used and performed in public situations. As the novelist and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed says, if you want to understand rap and hip-hop, you’ve got to understand toasts.”

The toasts featured in the book, says Jackson, come from various sources, including street corners, barber shops, bars and jails — “places young men hang around without much to do.”

Although Jackson says the stories told in these works can be personal and intimate — and he has heard blues lyrics and Robert Service poems recited as toasts — they generally celebrate a number of folkloric figures from African-American culture like “Stackolee,” the famed bad man said to have murdered a guy over a Stetson hat […]

Hmm. After reading that, I dug deeper. The first documented reference to a song called “Stack-a-Lee” (by “Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano-thumper”) was in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald in 1897. Robert Service published “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in 1907.

I don’t hold a degree in ethnomusicology or poetry, but it does raise a tantalizing possibility that Service, like Rudy Ray Moore, could have been inspired by traditional African-American toasts (all I have to do is tell the truth …and no one ever believes me).

Not that the subject of Robert Service (or his poems) ever arises in Dolemite Is My Name (running concurrently in theaters and on Netflix), but the film does impart everything you ever wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about the late cult comedian and filmmaker.

The film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a Moore biopic to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety.

Circa 1970, Moore begins to take “professional” interest in the storytelling skills of Ricco (Ron Cephus Jones) a wino who habitually panhandles at the record store. Ricco regales anyone who has change jangling in their pockets with the raunchy misadventures of a fictional pimp/badass named “Dolemite”. Ricco delivers his tales in the form of rhymes.

This gives Moore an epiphany; he dry-runs the “Dolemite” persona on stage one night, replete with pimp regalia, street attitude, and nasty toasts, and to his delight the audience eats it up. Word-of-mouth spreads, and the new-and-improved act makes him a local hit.

To capitalize on the unexpected career surge, Moore next sets sights on making “party records” that would surpass even the bawdiness of Redd Foxx, who at the time was one of the most popular “blue” acts that was releasing “adults only” comedy albums (although it’s not mentioned in the film, Moore had already released three traditional comedy LPs between 1959 and 1964). As he was still a relative unknown quantity outside of the African American community, Moore initially had to go the D.I.Y. route.

Once he was able to gain a wider fan base from his records, Moore decided to take it to the next logical step…the movies. The final two-thirds of Dolemite Is My Name focuses on the making of Moore’s first independent film, which was called (wait for it) Dolemite.

Bereft of studio backing or deep-pocketed investors, Moore finagles an abandoned L.A. hotel as a sound stage. He assembles a mostly amateur cast, hires some UCLA film students as crew, enlists a black consciousness-woke playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) as screenwriter, and sweet-talks an actor with some Hollywood credits named D’Urville Martin to be his director (played by a scenery-chewing Wesley Snipes).

Moore casts himself as the film’s eponymous hero, a kung-fu fighting badass pimp (this was the peak of the “blaxploitation” era, in case you hadn’t picked up on that) and his stage act partner/comedy foil Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as his leading lady (made on a shoestring in 1975, every bit of Dolemite’s lack of funding and/or film-making prowess showed on the screen; nonetheless it did find an audience and became a surprise cult hit).

I was getting a strong whiff of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood while watching Brewer’s film. It immediately became clear as to “why” when I looked up Alexander and Karaszewski’s screenwriting credits and discovered Ed Wood to be among them (I’m a little slow sometimes-but I’m nothing if not intuitive).

While it doesn’t tell the complete story of Moore’s life, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.

Mind you, I wouldn’t file it under “good clean family fun”,  but Dolemite Is My Name is nonetheless an entertaining, upbeat, and affectionate portrait you won’t need to hide from your parents.

Pretty as you feel: Chained For Life (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2019)

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Now the questions that come to mind: “Where is this place and when is it?” “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?” You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life – perhaps out amongst the stars – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.

— Epilogue from “Eye of the Beholder”, a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.

Depending on how far back your pop culture references go, a certain classic episode from the original Twilight Zone TV series may (or may not) keep popping into your head as you watch writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “movie within a movie” Chained For Life.

Picture if you will: a postmodernist mashup of The Elephant Man with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I’ll give you a moment). Schimberg’s film intercuts two parallel romantic affairs; one involving two fictional lead characters in an arthouse horror flick, and the other one that is developing off-set between the two actors who portray the leads.

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is the leading lady, a beautiful movie star hoping to score some art cred by working with a critic’s darling German director (Charlie Korsmo) who is making his English-language debut. Cast opposite Mabel is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a sweet-natured young man with a pronounced facial deformity. “Herr Director” is using a semi-abandoned hospital for his set, casting a dwarf, “real” Siamese twins, a “bearded lady”, and other folks with unusual physical attributes alongside professional actors like Mabel.

Rosenthal has never acted in a film before; he picks Mabel’s brain between takes for tips. He’s particularly nervous about memorizing his dialog. Mabel assures him that every actor, no matter the degree of experience, worries about that in the early days of a shoot.

“Name an emotion,” Mabel says to Rosenthal in an impromptu acting lesson. On the spot, he can’t think of one. “Sadness,” she offers, as she changes expression to match the emotion. “See?” she says, “Acting.” “I see,” says Rosenthal, “Now I’ve got one. Happiness.” Mabel obliges. “Let’s try fear,” he says. She promptly shows fear. “How about…empathy?” Rosenthal requests. Mabel begins to hedge. “So…empathy in 3-2-1, action!” he repeats. Cleverly, Schimberg keeps his camera on Rosenthal as Mabel gives it a go. “And…it’s a lot like ‘pity’. But all the same, I’m touched,” Rosenthal deadpans.

That funny/sad scene in the first act is essentially the crux of the film: “Empathy” truly is “an advanced emotion” to convey, as Mabel says to Rosenthal with a nervous laugh. Rosenthal’s resigned response to Mabel’s good intentions reveals much about what it’s like to be inside the head of someone who has no control over others’ first impressions of them (he’s thinking “different day, same old shit”). Our first reactions give us away, and honest conversations about how society treats such “outsiders” are far and few between.

Schimberg’s film, while decidedly unconventional, is eminently accessible (once you adjust to its peculiar rhythms). He is clearly a student of the Robert Altman school; highly populated shots with slow zooms from multiple cameras, overlapping dialog, and an improvised feel (although I don’t know for a fact that he gave his actors that leeway).

For me, the best scene is the denouement. Mabel is taking a taxi to the airport after the film production wraps. The camera remains solely on her while she has a conversation with the driver (who we hear, but never see). Initially, Mabel appears uncomfortable, particularly when the driver tells her she is very beautiful and then says he’s a movie fan.

“We have something in common,” the taxi driver says. “We are both artists.” He hands her a book that he has written about his escape from Nigeria. He thinks it would make a great movie. Maybe Denzel Washington can play him. “I know 9 languages,” he tells her. “I am also a math wizard.” He asks her to give him a random math problem, which he solves in seconds, Rain Man style. He tells her about his plans to produce a YouTube series that teaches children math. He dreams it will become so popular that he will be able to use his celebrity status to “ask President Trump to bring my family from Nigeria.”

“You’re an extraordinary man,” Mabel says in wonderment.

And this is an extraordinarily timely film.

When you get to the bottom: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 3, 2019)

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 Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

– “American Pie”, by Don McLean

CHAPTER ONE: Well it’s 1969, OK

Once upon a time (well…a month ago) I wrote a piece about two related films; Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, and Jacques Demy’s 1969 drama Model Shop, which Slater name-checks as an inspiration for his look back at the influential music scene that thrived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

I’d never seen (or heard of) Model Shop until its recent TCM premiere. From my review:

Like many films of its era, “Model Shop” is a leisurely, episodic character study. […] Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s “Welcome to L.A”. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

It appears Model Shop is a gift that keeps on giving-it is also cited by Quentin Tarantino as an inspiration driving his latest postmodernist opus, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Then again, there are any number of “inspirations” fueling any Tarantino film you’d care to name. He is contemporary cinema’s doyen of pop-cultural re-appropriation (some cry “plagiarism”, but rare is the filmmaker who doesn’t wear their influences on their sleeve).

As a film geek who never meta-reference I didn’t like, I enjoy the parlor game aspect of his films. The title: “once upon a time in Hollywood” pulls double duty. It is a nod to a 1969 Leone western (Tarantino’s film is set in 1969). “Once upon a time” suggests a fairy tale; you can expect a subversion of reality, despite the fact it is set “in Hollywood”, a real place you can visit. A real place, of course, where they crank out fantasies-on reels.

CHAPTER TWO: The Actual Fucking Review

It’s too late
To fall in love with Sharon Tate
But it’s too soon
To ask me for the words I want carved on my tomb

– “It’s Too Late”, by The Jim Carroll Band

Marilyn Monroe once famously said “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” Of course, she was specifically referring to the craft of acting, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while toiling in the skin-deep recesses of the Dream Factory. Indeed, there are myriad stories of those who got off the bus in Tinseltown with stars in their eyes, determined to “make it” at any cost-only to get chewed up and spit out; dreams shattered, souls crushed.

Hollywood is also a “place” where you can divide your show biz types into two categories: Those who are on their way up, and those who are on their way down. Then, there’s the ephemeral confluence where (to quote my favorite line from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a screen capture of one such confluence. On her way up: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…a young, beautiful star fresh off positive reviews for her role in the latest “Matt Helm” spy caper, The Wrecking Crew. On his way down: her neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)…a middle-aged, alcoholic ex-TV actor with a middling film career.

Right out of the gate, Tarantino is signaling his intent to mix fact with fantasy by placing fictional characters (like Rick Dalton) alongside real-life characters (like the late Sharon Tate) in his tale; so, abandon hope now of standard biopic clichés…all ye who enter here.

Dalton’s partner-in-crime is veteran stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth was Dalton’s long-standing stunt double in a hit TV western series that made Dalton a multi-platform star du jour in the mid-60s (suggested by a cleverly simulated “archival” clip of Dalton lip-syncing a song on the music variety show Hullabaloo-which triggered my PTSD regarding Bill Shatner’s nightmare-fueling but mercifully brief stint as a pop idol).

Due to Dalton’s driver’s license suspension (a result of one-too-many DUIs) Booth has also become the fading actor’s de facto chauffeur; in fact, he has ostensibly become his live-in P.A., groundskeeper and handyman – for which he receives a stipend. Despite that, their friendship is not necessarily transactional, like Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia”.

The two buds share a world view; demonstrated by a reactionary mindset regarding members of the counterculture (whom they refer to as “dirty fuckin’ hippies”) and a casual racism.

In a telling flashback, we learn how Booth got himself fired from a stuntman gig on The Green Hornet TV series-he goads Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) into a back lot scrap by mocking his fight philosophy and derisively addressing him as “Kato” (this has in turn goaded relatives and fans of the late martial arts superstar into hurling accusations at Tarantino of Asian stereotyping and defamation of Lee’s character and legacy; I would argue 1.) the writer’s intention was merely to add exposition to Booth’s back story, and 2.) “once upon a time” offers up a major clue: THIS IS A FAIRY TALE).

About those dirty fuckin’ hippies. If you know Sharon Tate’s heartbreaking life story, then you’re aware her journey is inexorably enmeshed with a particularly odious group of dirty fuckin’ hippies. Namely, Charles Manson and his followers, aka The Family. Yes, they all have a part to play in this postmodern Grimm’s fairy tale; more on that shortly.

But first, back to Rick Dalton’s flagging career. Pushed by a fast talking Hollywood agent (played by a scenery-chewing Al Pacino) to overcome his “one-note action star” stigma by tackling an out-of-character guest appearance as the heavy in an episode of a TV western (directed  with amusing  high art flair by Sam Wanamaker, played by Nicholas Hammond) Dalton reluctantly signs on.  It’s worth noting that the real Sam Wanamaker did direct a 1971 movie western called Catlow, which had Leonard Nimoy playing a heavy.

I should warn Tarantino fans anticipating non-stop action with shit blowing up and/or a freakishly high body count: Dalton’s struggle to recover his acting mojo takes up a sizeable chunk of the film’s 159-minute run time. This is not Kill Bill Tarantino; this is Jackie Brown Tarantino. In other words, the Model Shop influence is strong in this one, as in (to reiterate from my review) a “leisurely, episodic character study” (well…mostly).

I know, what about that whole Manson Family thing? Brad Pitt gets his star turn when his character gives one of Charlie’s girls a ride back to the ranch (as in Spahn). Short of the climax, it’s the most “Tarantino-esque” set piece in the film. The sequence is drenched in dread and foreboding, yet perfectly tempered by darkly comic underpinnings and the idiosyncratic pentameter of Tarantino dialog. Bruce Dern has a great cameo as George Spahn, and Dakota Fanning is almost too convincing as psycho daisy Squeaky Fromme.

Which brings us to the climax. You knew where this was headed, didn’t you? You know this takes place in the Summer of 1969. You know what happened on that awful night in August. And, you know that this wouldn’t be a “Tarantino film” without a shot of adrenaline jabbed straight into the heart of the narrative; provoking sudden, shocking and surreal Grand Guignol.  “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino simply must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?”

Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share (as I suspect anyone who’s read this far would really, really appreciate it if I could just wrap up this goddam tome sometime this Century) is this: DiCaprio and Pitt have rarely been better, Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9 year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

SIFF 2019: Storm in My Heart (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Remember when some stoner discovered that if you sync up the Dark Side of the Moon album with The Wizard of Oz…magic happened? This is a similar concept. It’s tough to pigeonhole this “video essay” by obsessive cineaste and film maker Mark Cousins (The Story of Film, The Eyes of Orson Welles). I’d call it more of “an experiment”.

Anyway, his premise: Actresses Susan Hayward and Lena Horne were born on the same day in Brooklyn. Both ended up with storied careers. However, as Horne was African-American and Hayward was white, their trajectories were decidedly different.

Simultaneously running Horne’s 1943 musical Stormy Weather alongside Hayward’s 1953 film With a Song in My Heart, Cousins hopes viewers gain insight regarding racism in Hollywood. I tried, believe me. Aside from a few interestingly synchronous moments, I’m afraid that he did a complete flyover on me.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2018

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2018)

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As 2018 closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 feature films out of the 50 or so I reviewed this year. As per usual my list is presented alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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Big Sonia – There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer).

But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world. Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. You think you’ve had problems in your life? Let me put it this way…I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. (Full review)

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Black KkKlansman – So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.  (Full review)

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Fahrenheit 11/9 – Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions

As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity. If you’re a Moore fan, you won’t be disappointed (though you may be a bit depressed). If you’re a Moore hater, you won’t be disappointed. (Full review)

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The Guilty –Considering that nearly all of the “action” in Gustav Möller’s low-budget gem is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, Möller and his star Jakob Cedergren perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies.

Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and completely bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. (Full review)

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Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full review)

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Little Tito and the Aliens – I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss. (Full review)

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Outside In – The rain-washed town of Granite Falls, Washington (population 3400) is a palpable character in Lynn Shelton’s drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome. Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher.

Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco, who can say more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors convey with a page of dialog. Duplass (who co-scripted) also delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could call it a series of Zen moments; a reflective and meditative glimpse at the intimate workings of the creative process. It also documents Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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Wild, Wild Country – On one level, co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way’s binge-worthy Netflix documentary series is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up. It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). The Ways mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia. (Full review)

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – In his affable portrait of the publicly sweet, gentle, and compassionate TV host Fred Rogers, director Morgan Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead).

That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now. (Full review)

Good clean family fun (not!)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 3, 2018)

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(Now that I have your attention) 50 years ago this month, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).

Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.

By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.

The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.

But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:

As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]

Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]

Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]

Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:

I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]

In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.

Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]

I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.

If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”

The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:

The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]

Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.

 Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:

The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.

Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.

Anyway, on this 50th anniversary of the MPAA ratings we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.

It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.

Roger Ebert (yes, the film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some great lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (using a pseudonym, wisely).

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A Clockwork Orange – A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultraviolent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.

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The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.

It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase. Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the period Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings.

Even though it wasn’t officially rated ‘X’, I feel this underrated 1990 effort from the late writer-director Philip Kaufman warrants inclusion because it was the first film to earn the newly-minted ‘NC-17’ rating.

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (there are scenes featuring views of male and female genitalia).

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Inserts – If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.

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Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers. Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).

Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers. “Well, this is going to be intense,” you find yourself thinking…and you would be right. Whether the ensuing psychodrama ultimately makes a bold and uncompromising statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious dreck is up to you.

For me, the film has become more fascinating over time (which may have everything to do with being older and presumably wiser). I appreciate Brando’s performance more now. There is an honesty and a vulnerability I never saw in his other roles. Maybe it’s me, but what he shows me in his other films is craft. What I observe here is his humanity.

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Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.

The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).

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Midnight Cowboy – Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.