Category Archives: Politics

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 31, 2021)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

This coming Friday marks the 76th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

What with the rapidly-mutating COVID-19 virus, record heat waves in the U.S., and flooding in Europe I’d all but forgotten that every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock. In January of 2020, they determined that it was “100 seconds to Midnight” (those seem like such carefree and happy days now…when our only worry was complete nuclear annihilation).

So how are we doing now?

Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.

As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly.

Though lethal on a massive scale, this particular pandemic is not an existential threat. Its consequences are grave and will be lasting. But COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers—including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare—that could threaten civilization in the near future. […]

As we noted in our last Doomsday Clock statement, the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have intensified in recent years because of a threat multiplier: the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend. Here, again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. False and misleading information disseminated over the internet—including misrepresentation of COVID-19’s seriousness, promotion of false cures, and politicization of low-cost protective measures such as face masks—created social chaos in many countries and led to unnecessary death. This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens. […]

C’mon guys…can you at least throw us a bone, here…?

Considered by themselves, these negative events in the nuclear, climate change, and disinformation arenas might justify moving the clock closer to midnight. But amid the gloom, we see some positive developments. The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems. For example, the United States has already announced it is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia for five years. In the context of a post-pandemic return to relative stability, more such demonstrations of renewed interest in and respect for science and multilateral cooperation could create the basis for a safer and saner world.

Because these developments have not yet yielded substantive progress toward a safer world, they are not sufficient to move the Clock away from midnight. But they are positive and do weigh against the profound dangers of institutional decay, science denialism, aggressive nuclear postures, and disinformation campaigns discussed in our 2020 statement. The members of the Science and Security Board therefore set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse and the same time we set in 2020. It is deeply unfortunate that the global response to the pandemic over the past year has explicitly validated many of the concerns we have voiced for decades.

OK. Some cautious optimism. But nuclear proliferation itself is so last century…right?

In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die. Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate, while destabilizing “advances” in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defenses continued. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use. There continues to be an extraordinary disregard for the potential of an accidental nuclear war, even as well-documented examples of frighteningly close calls have emerged.

Oh, crap. Anyway…with those happy thoughts in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era (Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project, John Badham’s War Games, et. al.)

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but Duigan capably juggles this mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Parallax View (The Criterion Collection)

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

Tribeca 2021: The Price of Freedom (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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From a 2016 piece I wrote in the wake of the Orlando nightclub mass shooting:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over.

I wrote that five years ago; if anything, it seems gun violence in America has increased. Let’s put it this way…it’s an ongoing and complex issue. This timely documentary from Judd Ehrlich focuses on the political angle, more specifically the political influence of the NRA. How did the gun lobby become so powerful?

Taking an evenhanded approach, Ehrlich has politicians, victims of gun violence, and NRA representatives all weighing in. He also offers an absorbing history of the NRA, pinpointing how the organization transitioned from hobbyists to lobbyists. There are no easy solutions; but as Ehrlich reminds us, there is a generation of young people like Parkland school-shooting survivor-turned activist Emma Gonzalez who are out there providing light at the end of the tunnel.

Tribeca 2021: Not Going Quietly (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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You may not recognize Ady Barkan by name, but you may remember a chance encounter he had on a plane with then U.S. Senator Jeff Flake in 2017 that went viral. Barkan (diagnosed with ALS in 2016 at age 32) confronted Flake on an impending Congressional vote on a tax cut that would have negative residual effects on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs that people with disabilities rely upon for health care assistance.

Nicholas Bruckman’s “warts and all” documentary charts how Barkin continues to use his skills as a longtime activist to spearhead a national campaign for healthcare reform, despite the progression of his disease. Don’t pity him-he doesn’t want it. You’ll pity yourself for not being out there making a difference like this amazing person.

Tribeca 2021: 9/11: One Day in America (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Tribeca is premiering this 72-minute pilot episode of an upcoming 6-part National Geographic Channel series. There have been quite a few documentaries recounting the horrors and heroics of that day, but I think this is the most affecting one I’ve seen to date. Much of the footage may be all-too-familiar, but director Daniel Bogado’s compelling, minute-by-minute network narrative-style reconstruction gives equal import to intimate testimonies of survivors and the broader historical context.

Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

If you really must pry: Top 10 Films of 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2020)

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As the year closes, it’s time to pick the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2020. In a “normal” year, I usually watch and review between 50 and 60 first-run features and documentaries. This year, the tally was…substantially lower. 2020 was challenging for a movie critic (well…at least speaking for myself, as a low-rung player). Anyway (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Boogie Nights), that’s an “M.P.” (My Problem), not a “Y.P.” (Your Problem). Per usual my picks are listed alphabetically, not by rank.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Anyone who has ever spent a few hours down the pub knows there are as many descriptive terms for “drunks” as the Inuits have for “snow” . Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…et.al. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in this extraordinary (and controversial) genre-defying Sundance hit.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. (Full review)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – So how did the world become (to quote from one of Paddy Cheyefsky’s classic monologues in Network) “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

Justin Pemberton’s timely documentary (based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty) tackles those kind of questions. Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. (Full review)

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Desert One – In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back 53 American citizens held hostage in Iran. It did not end well. The failed mission also likely ended Carter’s already waning chances of winning a second term as President.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Carter. An eye-opening documentary. (Full review)

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Love Spreads – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, and Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection) is right in that wheelhouse. “Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs.

The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat). Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, (with a dash of Love and Mercy), bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and some catchy original songs. (Full review)

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Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always – Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s timely drama centers on 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) , a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder). They both work part-time as grocery clerks in rural Pennsylvania (a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided). After a decidedly unhelpful visit to her local “crisis pregnancy center” and a harrowing failed attempt to self-induce an abortion, Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds and hop a bus to New York City.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. She does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate. This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be; it is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.(Full review)

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Pacified – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil make a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection). A cross between The King of New York and City of God, it takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians. (Full review)

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76 Days – Filmed during the early days of the Coronavirus epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, this remarkable documentary was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months (it was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists and their small camera crews). Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach.

I know it seems perverse to include this in my top 10 for a year where movies serve as one of the few respites from the real-life horror of the pandemic; nonetheless, 76 Days must be acknowledged as a timely, humanistic, and essential document. (Full review)

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Tommaso – Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s drama is the latest descendant of Fellini’s ; although it offers a less fanciful and more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is no exception.

He is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife and 3 year-old daughter. At first glance, he leads an idyllic existence. However, it soon becomes evident there is trouble in Paradise. Again, it’s familiar territory, but worth the the price of admission 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. (Full review).

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

While the trial has been the subject of documentaries and feature films in the past (like the 2008 film The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle, by focusing on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants. While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a “conspirators” by the government. (Full review)

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Weathering With You – Here’s a question somewhat unique to 2020: Do you remember the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I do. It was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film. Little did I suspect that it would come to hold such a special place in my memory…for reasons outside of the film itself. I’ll admit I had some problems with the narrative, which may bring into question why its in my top 10 . That said, I concluded my review thusly:

Still, there’s a lot to like about “Weathering  With You”, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

I have since seen it again, twice (I bought the Blu-ray). Like many of Shinkai’s films, it improves with subsequent viewings. Besides, there’s no law against modifying your initial impression of a movie. That’s my modified opinion, and I’m sticking to it. (Full review)

…and just for giggles

Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing film reviews here at Digby’s (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2020)

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Note: This Sunday marks 57 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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

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

The film also takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

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

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian de Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape. The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “de Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

Mockery of a sham: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2020)

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Don’t say I didn’t warn you. From my 2008 review of The Trial of the Chicago 10:

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

Flash-forward 12 years. I’d venture to say that the “historical parallels” between the Nixon and Trump administrations are even more pronounced in 2020 than between the Nixon and Bush Jr. administrations in 2008, not to mention the “overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country” (which is widely considered to be at an all-time low). And I still say “…the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.”

Spielberg saw something shinier, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has emerged from the other side of Development Hell largely unscathed, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin now in the director’s chair and Sacha Baron Cohen sporting Abbie Hoffman hair (funnily enough, Cohen has also unleashed his new Borat film-in time for the upcoming election).

For you young’uns, here is the back story: In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

No, your calculations are correct…there were originally “8” defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out of the proceedings altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served a 4 year sentence for contempt. The remaining seven defendants’ outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never served any time).

The trial dragged on for months, resulting in each of the seven being acquitted of conspiracy. Two defendants were acquitted completely; and the remaining five were convicted of “crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot”. However, all the convictions were reversed by a U.S. appeals court in 1972 (the Justice Department wisely decided to let it go at that point). None of the seven served time for the contempt charges.

Contextually, there was a lot going on with that trial; from a dramatist’s point of view there are any number of angles to riff on. On the most superficial level, there is the political theater aspect of the proceeding…an opportunity that wasn’t lost on a couple of the more flamboyant defendants (i.e., self-proclaimed “Yippees” Hoffman and Rubin) who took the ball and ran with it (much to the chagrin of exasperated Judge Hoffman, who was dispensing “contempt of court” charges like Halloween candy by the trial’s end).

But there was also something broader in scope and more insidious at play here; namely, the “war” that President Richard M. Nixon had all but declared on America’s counterculture, which he perceived to be his greatest nemesis (his “enemies list” is legend). More specifically, Nixon was wielding the Justice Department as a truncheon to beat down and suppress the antiwar movement (or “radical Left protesters”…if you will).

If certain elements sound depressingly similar to 2020, that is an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Aaron Sorkin. I am aware of detractors who feel Sorkin wields his prose like a truncheon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Negative reviews I’ve read tend to whinge on about how he belabors those historical parallels…but that is precisely what I like about it.

A great cast helps. As I noted earlier, Cohen is an inspired choice to play Abbie Hoffman. In the guise of his alter-egos Ali ‘G’ and Borat, Cohen has used elements of political guerilla theater rooted in the ethos of 1960s activist street performers like The Diggers and the San Francisco Mime troupe. Likewise, Hoffman himself frequently staged rallies using guerilla theater techniques, most notably in 1967 when he and fellow activist Allen Ginsberg joined thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

Jeremy Strong (so good as the coke-addled heir in HBO’s Succession) is excellent as Hoffman’s main partner-in-disruption Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella makes a convincingly cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Federal prosecutor Dick Schultz (who has taken issue with the film’s portrayal of himself and elements of the trial) and Michael Keaton plays it straight in his cameo as Ramsay Clark. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (featured in HBO’s Watchmen) is a standout as Bobby Seale.

In addition to Cohen, the impressive UK contingent of the cast includes Mark Rylance as defense attorney Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as activist Tom Hayden. Interestingly, Sorkin focuses on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. In my 2009 review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, I observed:

It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.

This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.

By playing up the Hoffman vs. Hayden “more radical than thou” stalemate, Sorkin is doing something similar here—pointing out how messy “revolutions” can get; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of backgrounds and approaches taken by each the (originally) eight defendants.

While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a group of “conspirators” by their government. Dystopian nightmare fuel…but the good news is our justice system worked, and the convictions were reversed.

Then again, as many have said—American Democracy (borne of revolution, mind you) is “messy”. So far, our checks and balances have kept it from collapsing. But we have come “this close” many times. At least twice in my lifetime…during the aforementioned Nixon administration (which ended in his resignation as a result of the Watergate debacle) and right here and now. But there is a time-proven way to keep it shored up:

Get out the vote.

 

(“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is currently playing on Netflix)