Category Archives: Mystery

Twitch and shout: Motherless Brooklyn (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…one more thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIFF 2019: Here Comes Hell (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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UK director Jack McHenry’s feature film debut is an homage to classic black-and-white “haunted mansion” thrillers, mixed with contemporary gore film sensibilities. A bit reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic (although not quite in the same league), the story takes place over the course of one eventful and unsettling evening. A group of people converge at an isolated country estate and accidentally open the door to Hell (I hate it when that happens!). There’s a fair amount of mordant humor, and the special effects are pretty good for a low-budget production, but it’s all rather rote.

Stop that train: R.I.P. Albert Finney

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Albert Finney died yesterday, and more people should have cared. I almost missed it myself, which is odd considering how much time I fritter and waste in an offhand way online these days. It didn’t even trend on Twitter, for fuck’s sake. No, I learned of his passing the old-fashioned way: a perfunctory mention on a nightly network TV newscast.

A file photo of Finney popped up (rarely a good sign), and the blow-dried anchor mustered all the teleprompter-fed solemnity extant in his soul to sadly inform me that “the actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of Annie has died” before moving on to “a video you have got to see”. The actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the film version of Annie? Really? That’s all you got? I wouldn’t call that his most memorable performance; I wouldn’t even consider Annie to be a particularly good movie.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre-trained Finney’s film career spanned over 50 years, and in the course of that time he proved over and over that he had chops to spare for both drama and comedy. Innately charismatic onscreen, he could effortlessly hold your attention as the dashing leading man, or just as easily embed himself into a character role.

Finney never strayed too far from his working-class roots in his off-screen demeanor. He shunned interviews and the trappings of stardom; he was all about the work. He declined the offer of a CBE (as well as a knighthood) and once compared an actor’s job to that of a bricklayer. So let’s get to work here, shall we? My picks for Finney’s top 10 film roles…

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The Dresser– Peter Yates directed this tale of a fiercely devoted “dresser” (Tom Courtenay) who tends to the mercurial lead player (Finney) of a traveling company’s production of King Lear. The story is set against the backdrop of London during the blitz, but it’s a tossup as to who is producing more Sturm and Drang…the German bombers, the raging king, or the backstage terror who portrays him and is to be addressed by all as “Sir”. Courtenay and Finney deliver brilliant performances. Ronald Harwood adapted the script from his own play. In the most memorable scene, Sir literally halts a locomotive in its tracks at a noisy railway station with his commanding bellow to “STOP. That. Train!”

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Gumshoe– This relatively obscure U.K. gem from 1971 was produced by Finney and marked the feature film directing debut for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, et. al.). Finney is wonderful as an emcee who works in a seedy Liverpool nightclub and models himself after Philip Marlowe. He decides to indulge his long-time fantasy of becoming a private detective by placing a newspaper ad offering his services-and gets more than he bargains for with his first case.

Screenwriter Neville Smith’s clever dialog is infused with just enough shadings of Chandler and Hammet to deflect suspicion of plagiarism (and Finney thankfully doesn’t overdo his Bogey impression-which isn’t half-bad). Nice supporting turn from Billie Whitelaw, and Frears’ use of the gritty Liverpool milieu lends an appropriate “noir” vibe.

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Miller’s Crossing– This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen. Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (who is the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace by playing both sides against the middle. This form of diplomacy does carry a certain degree of personal risk (don’t try this at home).

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of twisty performances, stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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Orphans– There is sometimes a fine line between “intense drama” and “overcooked ham”, and while I will admit that this 1987 Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Lyle Kessler’s stage play toddles dangerously close to that line, it is still well worth your time.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson are two fringe-dwelling brothers who live on their own in a decrepit house. Finney is a low-rent Chicago gangster who gets blotto at a New Jersey bar, and upon waking up discovers he’s been “kidnapped” by Modine, who has a hold over his brother reminiscent of the dynamic between the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The story becomes even stranger when Finney decides then and there to move in and impose himself as a father figure. It’s a bit ‘stagey’, but the acting is superb.


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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning– This 1960 Karel Reisz drama gave the 24-year-old Finney his first major starring role and is one of the seminal entries of the “British New Wave” film movement. Finney delivers an explosive Brando-esque performance as a womanizing young man stuck in a dreary factory job. Allen Sillitoe adapted the screenplay from his own novel. A gritty slice of life steeped in “kitchen sink” realism.

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Shoot the Moon– Be forewarned: Alan Parker’s 1982 drama about the deterioration of a marriage pulls no punches (it is right out as a “date night” movie). Finney co-stars with Diane Keaton as a couple with four kids whose marriage is about to go kaput. As in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film essentially opens with the split, and then focuses on the immediate emotional aftershocks and its profound impact on all family members.

Absolutely heartbreaking, but beautifully acted by a skilled cast that includes Karen Allen, Peter Weller, and Dana Hill. Bo Goldman scripted, and Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lovely (the Marin County environs almost becomes a character itself).

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Tom Jones– The film that made Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety. Will he triumph? Of course, he will…the entertainment lies in how he gets there.

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

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Two For the Road– Director Stanley Donen’s 1967 romantic comedy is a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn (both at the peak of their sex appeal) exude an electric on-screen chemistry.

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Under the Volcano– John Huston’s masterful 1984 adaptation of Michael Lowry’s novel stars Finney as a self-destructive British consul stationed in Mexico on the eve of WW2. The story tracks the consul on the last day of his life, as it unfolds during Dia de los Muertas celebrations (the irony is strong in this tale). Very dark and steeped in dread. Superb performances all round from a cast that includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Guy Gallo wrote the script. My favorite Finney performance.

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Wolfen– This 1981 supernatural thriller from director Michael Wadleigh generated mixed reviews, but I think it has held up rather well. Sort of a thinking person’s horror film, it follows a NYPD homicide detective (Finney) and his partner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate a series of grisly murders. The victims’ wounds indicate something much akin to a wild animal attack. Add elements of ancient Native American legends regarding “shapeshifters” and things get…interesting. Granted, some of the early 80s visual effects haven’t aged well, but overall Wolfen is a smart, absorbing, and genuinely creepy chiller.

Bizarre love triangle: Burning (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2018)

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The Great Gatsby meets The Talented Mr. Ripley at the corner of William Faulkner and Brett Easton Ellis in director Lee Chang-dong’s leisurely-paced mystery-thriller Burning. I’m telling you it’s “leisurely-paced” now, because with a time investment of 2 hours, 28 minutes, I’d hazard to guess it’s the type of news you’d prefer that I’d share right away.

The story centers on an insular, socially isolated young man named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) who has become sole caretaker of his father’s modest farm near the North Korean border while dad languishes in the court system (he’s on trial for some unspecified malfeasance).

One day, Jongsu is sleep-walking through his part-time delivery gig in nearby Seoul, when he is unexpectedly jostled by a vivacious and flirty young woman named Haemi (Jong-seo Joo) who claims to have been a childhood schoolmate.

It’s clear the flustered Jongsu initially doesn’t remember her; it’s also painfully obvious he’s unaccustomed to having even a vague possibility of romantic involvement fall in his lap, so he plays along.

Before he knows it, Haemi has ingratiated herself into his life; Jongsu walks around with a half-dazed expression like he can’t quite believe his dumb luck, especially after one glorious (if initially fumbling and awkward) night of amour.

But then, just as quickly, the flighty Haemi announces she is traveling to Africa for a soul-searching sabbatical (oh, and would he mind checking in on her apartment and feeding her cat while she is away?). Of course, he doesn’t mind; he’s one of those hapless pushover-types that anyone who’s been to two world’s fairs and a film festival will instantly recognize as a classic noir sap.

Cue an interlude reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion; wherein Jongsu falls into a listless torpor holding vigil in Haemi’s dark and claustrophobic apartment, dividing his time between feeding a cat that he can never find and masturbating joylessly to a photo of Haemi as he faces a small window that affords a smudged view of the tip of the Namsan Seoul Tower (insert Freudian subtext here).

As days run into (weeks? Months?) Jongsu begins to question whether the cat even exists. Scratch that; was Haemi ever there? The viewer begins to wonder as well, especially since we’re told Jongsu is an aspiring writer.

Jongsu brightens when he gets a call from Haemi, back from her sojourn and wanting to meet up with him for lunch. However, his heart sinks when he sees she’s brought “a friend” she met in Africa, a fellow Korean traveler named Ben (Steven Yuen).

Ben is a mysterious, urbane trustafarian. Haemi, ebullient as ever, is confident the trio will be thick as thieves in no time. Jongsu, not so much. Initially seeing Ben as a possible sexual rival, Jongsu eyes him suspiciously, but then inexorably succumbs to his inherent charm.

It’s difficult to further discuss the narrative without risking spoilers, so suffice it to say that many twists ensue. Unfortunately, the twists that ensue are nothing that haven’t previously ensued in scores of other mystery-thrillers (and presented with more brevity).

The director and Jung-mi Oh co-adapted their screenplay from a short story by Haruki Murakami called “Barn Burning” (also the name of a short story by William Faulkner; at one point in the film, Jongsu tells Ben that Faulkner is his favorite writer).

Interestingly, in a transcribed interview with the director conducted by co-screenwriter Oh that was included in the press kit, Lee says “When you first recommended to me this short story, I was a bit taken aback. Because the story felt mysterious, but nothing really happens in it.”

Judging by that criteria, I’d have to say Lee’s film is, if nothing else, a faithful adaptation.

Spirits in the night: John Carpenter’s The Fog [re-release] (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27th, 2018)

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Just in time for Halloween, a 4K restoration of John Carpenter’s 1980 chiller The Fog debuts this weekend in select cities. Carpenter’s follow-up to his surprise 1978 low-budget horror hit Halloween didn’t conjure up quite the same degree of enthusiasm from film-goers and critics, but still did respectable box office and has become a cult favorite.

Set in the sleepy hamlet of Antonio Bay on the California coast, the film opens with a crusty old salt (the great John Houseman) holding court around a campfire scaring the bejesus out of children with a local legend about a mysterious 19th-Century shipwreck on nearby rocks. This happens to be the eve of the 100th anniversary of the incident; the codger hints at portents of imminent phantasmagorical vengeance. ‘Night, kids-sleep tight! Enter a winsome, free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) who catches a ride into Antonio Bay with one of the locals (Tom Atkins), just in time to see a dense, eerily glowing fog roll into town at the stroke of midnight (rarely a good sign). Mayhem ensues.

As is the case in most of Carpenter’s oeuvre, narrative takes a back seat to suspense and atmosphere. In another Carpenter trademark (and ongoing nod to one of his Hollywood heroes Howard Hawks), there’s more character development than you find in contemporary horror fare, which tends to emphasize shock and gore. The film isn’t gore-free, but (cleverly) it’s more aurally than visually graphic; which showcases the craft of the Foley artists and sound engineers (as much of the action literally takes place in a fog).

It’s not Carpenter’s crown jewel (which for me is Escape from New York), but it gave me a few jumps and a guilty twinge of 80s nostalgia. The cast is game, especially 80s scream queen (and Mrs. Carpenter at the time) Adrienne Barbeau as a late-night radio DJ who broadcasts from an old lighthouse. I also enjoyed watching the Hollywood royalty on board (Houseman, Curtis’ mom Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook) doing their best to lend gravitas to the proceedings (which they must have had a tough time taking too seriously).

Due to technical limitations, the preview copy I watched was not in true 4K format, but it was the newly restored version, which highlights striking work by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, et.al.) and is a noticeable upgrade over murky, faded prints that I’ve seen circulating on cable and home video for years. I imagine that on the big screen, you can nearly make out what’s lurking in the mist now…

SIFF 2018: The Place ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Much of the “horror” in Paolo Genoveses’ horror anthology is left to the imagination, which is not dissimilar to what an enigmatic benefactor who holds court at a diner requires of his “clients” – if they want their wishes to come true. This deadpan “genie” hands out dubious assignments to desperate souls. There’s an opt-out, but few take it. Slow to start, and somewhat marred by repetitive staging, but becomes more gripping as it chugs along.

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

Blu-ray reissue: Blow-Up ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Blow-Up – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

You know how the song goes: “England swings like a pendulum do”. And nobody swung the art house in the 60s like Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Combine the acid-dazed op art splendor of 1966 London with Antonioni’s predilection for enigmatic narrative, and out pops this colorful mind-bender.

A “mod” photographer (David Hemmings) is wandering around a public park and espies a lovely young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who is acting a bit erratic. Intrigued, he shoots a series of photos. When he develops them, he realizes that he may have inadvertently documented a crime. What ensues is part mystery-thriller and part youth-exploitation flick. Look for a great scene in a club where The Yardbirds (featuring Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck) rave it up! Also in the cast: Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin, and Verushka.

Criterion’s 2017 Blu-ray features a 4K restoration, which is quite vibrant. Extras include a new 52-minute documentary about the making of the film, a 2016 interview with Vanessa Redgrave,  and archival interviews with Antonioni, David Hemmings, and Jane Birken.

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2017)

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If I liken the experience of watching Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film Loving Vincent as akin to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I am only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life.

It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a meticulously oil-painted frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature. The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise.

Our “detective” is Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of an Arles postman (Chris O’Dowd). A year after van Gogh’s suspicious death, Armand’s father entrusts his son with an undelivered letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Armand sets off to the bucolic countryside of Avers-sur-Oise that inspired many of van Gogh’s best paintings. As he encounters an ever-growing cast of characters ranging from the periphery to the inner circle of van Gogh’s daily life, Armand’s journey becomes a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts and contradictory impressions regarding the artist’s final chapter.

While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is handily the most visually resplendent one that I have seen. The film represents a 10-year labor of love by the filmmakers, who employed more than 100 artists to help achieve their vision…and it’s all up there on the screen. The narrative, however, is more on the “sketchy” side, if you know what I’m saying (I’m here all week).

Still, the film teasingly offers up some counter-myths to the conventional narrative that van Gogh was another tortured artist who had no choice but to check out early because he was just too damn sensitive for this cruel and unfeeling world. Maybe he wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger…hmm?

Granted, considering he produced 800 paintings (many considered priceless masterpieces) yet sold only one during his lifetime, and struggled with mental illness, it’s not like he didn’t have reasons to be depressed, but who can say with 100% certainty that there really was no hope left in sight, on that starry, starry night? I’d wager the answer lies on his canvasses; because every picture tells a story…don’t it?