Category Archives: Religion

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).

SIFF 2021: The Salt in Our Waters (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s sumptuously photographed variation on the venerable “city mouse-country mouse” scenario concerns a metropolitan sculptor (Titas Zia) who travels to a remote fishing village in the Bangladeshi Delta for a sabbatical. Inspired by the beauty of the coast (as well as one of the young women), he begins work on new pieces. Some villagers are puzzled by his sculptures (which they view as “idols” with no practical purpose) but are hospitable to their guest.

However, when the fishermen find their nets are suddenly coming up short (due to rising tides), the recently arrived outsider becomes a convenient straw man for the “Chairman”, the local head cleric and village leader. A compelling, beautifully acted drama that makes salient observations on tradition vs. modernity and science vs. fundamentalism.

Blu-ray reissue: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Just when I thought I was out…Francis Ford Coppola pulls me back in for a third (fourth?) dip into my wallet for the “definitive” cut of the film formerly known as The Godfather Part III.

In a short video intro on the Blu-ray, Coppola justifies his subtle re-cut thusly: “You’ll see a film that has a different beginning, has a different ending. Many scenes throughout have been re-positioned; and the picture has been given I think a new life…which does, in fact, act as illumination of what [The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II] meant.”

So, has all been illuminated? In the interest of fairness (and being that I was aware of the release date for the Blu-ray) I re-watched The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II recently (probably the 50th time) so that all the motifs would be fresh in my mind before diving into this slightly reshuffled “new” coda. I admit that I have more often than not binge-watched “I” and “II” without feeling compelled to revisit “III” (no thanks I’m full).

The result of watching the new cut with somewhat “fresh” eyes is that it is not as “bad” as I remember (“bad” intended as relative in the context that “I” and “II” constitute the greatest gangster saga in film history, making it a hard act to “coda”-even for its creator). On the other hand, it still doesn’t elevate the film to the masterpiece status of its prequels.

First let’s dispense with the snarky quips about Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary that have tainted the film for years. If anything, her “non-actor” reading of the character renders her proto-mumblecore performance as naturalistic; after all, could she help being a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player who was playing a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player?

Frankly, what I find most distracting performance-wise in III is her Aunt Talia Shire’s tendency to overact…with her hands. For whatever reason, Shire (reprising her role as Michael’s sister Connie) made an odd acting choice to gesticulate wildly in nearly every scene (I know Italians have a rep for “talking with their hands” …but Shire overdoes it).

Nits aside, the refurbished cut holds up well. Of the changes he made, Coppola’s repositioning of one particular scene to the beginning was the wisest, because it works as a visual and thematic callback to the opening moments of the original Godfather. All in all, it is as satisfying a “coda” for the saga one could expect within a relatively scant 2½ hour running time (considering I and II total hours of narrative to wrap up).

The transfer on Paramount’s Blu-ray is stunning in image and sound quality (both elements are newly restored). There are no extras (aside from Coppola’s 2 minute long introductory spiel) but I’m sure there will be a super-deluxe bells and whistles edition at some point. If you’re a fan of the trilogy (who isn’t?) I think you’ll be pleased.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Valley (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Last Valley – Kino-Lorber

Films set in Germany during The Thirty Years War are a niche genre…but as far as films set in Germany during the Thirty Years War go, one could do worse than this nearly forgotten but worthwhile drama from writer-director James Clavell.

The “outsider” is a recurring theme in Clavell’s work; and this tale is no exception. In this case the “outsider” is a two-headed beast in the form of an apolitical war refugee (Omar Sharif) and the ruthless Captain (Michael Caine) of a small contingent of mercenaries who both stumble upon a “hidden” valley whose residents have somehow managed to remain unscathed by the ravages of war and the Plague.

The Captain is ruthless (he would just as soon slit your throat as look at you) but also pragmatic; he decides against his initial impulse to kill Sharif, pillage the sleepy hamlet and move on after the quick thinking and silver-tongued Sharif convinces him it would be better all-around to spare the residents in exchange for putting his battle-weary soldiers up for the winter. The villagers, who seem malleable and complacent at first, come to reveal their own brand of pragmatism. A well-mounted period piece that also works as a timeless observation of human behavior in survival situations.

Kino-Lorber’s transfer of this 1971 film is excellent (although it does not look restored) and the audio quality is decent, which serves John Barry’s rousing score quite well. The only extra is a new commentary track, by a trio of film historians. It gets overly chatty at times with three people, but for the most part the observations are enlightening.

Blu-ray Reissue: Salesman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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Salesman – Criterion Collection

Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

Criterion has done their usual bang-up job here, starting with a new restored 4K digital transfer. There is a commentary track by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (from 2001). Extras include an archival 1968 TV interview with both Maysles brothers (sadly, all three directors are no longer with us).

The inclusion of “Globesman”, a spot-on 2016 parody of Salesman from the “mockumentary” IFC series Documentary Now! was a nice surprise (there’s also a short appreciation of Salesman by Documentary Now! co-creator Bill Hader).

SIFF 2019: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Just when I thought I knew everything about the Warhol Factory scene, this fascinating documentary introduces an overlooked player. Barbara Rubin was a Zelig-like character who moved to NYC at 18, became enmeshed with some of the era’s most culturally significant artists…then became one herself as a pioneering feminist filmmaker. And many years before Madonna dabbled in Kabbalah culture, Rubin embraced it full-bore, taking the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox Jewish community head on while re-inventing herself.

Peace, love and AK-47s: Wild Wild Country (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 24, 2018)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

In my 2012 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I wrote:

What [Anderson] has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

You could say the same about the mind-blowing, binge-worthy Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which premiered March 16th. On one level, it is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant (take your choice) Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

Actually, the Bhagwan is dead, but his legacy lives on. The exact nature of that legacy, however, is still open to debate…depending on whom you talk to. Obviously, those who continue to buy his books (and related “Osho” merch like T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, etc.), attend seminars, join communes, and/or live by his philosophy and consider themselves “Rashneejees” tend to think and speak of him in nothing less than glowing terms. Others, not so much. Both “sides” are given a fairly even shake in the 6-part series.

In the early 80s, fed up with harassment from authorities in his native India (who were readying to drop the hammer on him on suspicions of smuggling and tax fraud), the Bhagwan closed his ashram and, like the persecuted Pilgrims before him, set sail (more likely, booked a flight) for the land of the free. Opting to resettle a bit farther West than Plymouth Rock, he scooped up 100 square miles of cheap range land adjacent to a sleepy cow town in Wasco County, Oregon. Eventually, a veritable New Age city was created.

Who, you may ask, would have a problem with this soft-spoken, beatific gentleman who encouraged people to let go of hang-ups, realize their full potential, be as spontaneous and joyous and free and giving and loving toward one another as humanly possible (i.e. fuck like bunnies) while insisting he himself not be deified in any way, shape, or form?

What do you mean, “What’s the catch?” Must there always be a catch? Why so cynical?

What tipped you off that something may have been amiss…was it his fleet of Rolls-Royces? Was it his affinity for collecting shiny things, like expensive watches and jewelry? Can he be faulted if (as he claimed) his admirers insisted on festooning him with baubles? Oh, I bet I know what it was…it was the henchmen, armed with AK-47s—right?

Here’s a refresher, from a 2017 revision of a piece published in The Oregonian in 2011:

The Rajneeshees had been making headlines in Oregon for four years. Thousands dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized a wispy-haired man who sat silent before them. They had taken over a worn-out cattle ranch to build a religious utopia. They formed a city, and took over another. They bought one Rolls-Royce after another for the guru — 93 in all.

Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways. Both sides stewed, often publicly, before matters escalated far beyond verbal taunts and nasty press releases.[…]

Hand-picked teams of Rajneeshees had executed the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history, poisoning at least 700 people. They ran the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever uncovered. And their immigration fraud to harbor foreigners remains unrivaled in scope. The revelations brought criminal charges, defections, global manhunts and prison time. […]

It’s long been known they had marked Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor for murder, but now it’s clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.

They contaminated salad bars at numerous restaurants, but The Oregonian’s examination reveals for the first time that they just as eagerly spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building, and a political rally.

To strike at government authority, Rajneeshee leaders considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles — 16 years before al-Qaida used planes as weapons.

And power struggles within Rajneeshee leadership spawned plans to murder even some of their own. The guru’s caretaker was to be killed in her bed, spared only by a simple mistake.

Strangely, most of these stunning crimes were in rebellion against that most mundane of government regulations, land-use law. The Rajneeshees turned the yawner of comprehensive plans into a page-turning thriller of brazen crimes.

Meditate on that (om, om, on the range). And that’s just the Cliff’s Notes version. This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up.

It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). Co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia.

One and-a-half bar mitzvahs and a wedding: The Women’s Balcony (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In his 2009 Guardian piece “Does Judaism discriminate against women?” Dan Rickman writes:

There is however, a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all Orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought: a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say everyday thanks a God “who has not made me a woman”. […]

There are many couples where the husband is involved and the woman is estranged. What drives this is the dissonance between women’s lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in traditional Jewish life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male) rabbis.

Oy. So that begs an obvious question: Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist? Funnily enough, that is the name of a 2014 Telegraph article by Emma Barnett (an Orthodox Jew by upbringing and a feminist), who writes:

You see as a fully paid up feminist, I demand and expect total equality in my secular life and yet some would view what I accept as normal in my religious Jewish world, as anything but equal. Although believe me, no women in my personal Jewish life feel oppressed; if anything, they are in total control. […]

In the secular world, common sense must be the order of the day. It isn’t reasonable not to have women occupying the same roles as men and vice versa. But in a religious sphere, where faith is the binding force of a group of people, rationale has less sway or place. If you started applying logic to the beliefs held in most faiths, things would start to fall apart pretty quickly at the seams. […]

Male-led religions present a big dilemma to feminists in the modern world. And yes, on this topic, I am a full fat hypocrite. But as they say, faith begins often where logic ends.

This dilemma lies at the heart of a warm, witty and wise new Israeli dramedy called The Women’s Balcony, from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.

The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. As the film opens, a small but lively and close-knit congregation, led by venerable Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) gather at their modest synagogue for a bar-mitzvah.

Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous celebration takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses mid-ceremony. Luckily, all survive, but sadly, the rabbi’s wife sustains serious injuries that require indefinite round-the-clock hospital care. The aging Rabbi Menashe, not in the best health himself, has a nervous breakdown.

This leaves the congregation with two major deficits; no place to worship until repairs can be facilitated, and no spiritual leader at the helm until the rabbi (hopefully) recovers from his debilitating mental trauma. A few days after the accident, several of the men from the congregation are discussing the future of the synagogue and decide to pray on it.

However, they realize that they are a few bodies short of a minyan (a quorum of 10), which they will need in order to conduct a service. They ask a young man who passes by.

As fate would have it, he happens to be a rabbi, who is more than happy to fetch some of his students and shore up the minyan. The men instantly take to the charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who quite quickly ingratiates himself as the “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly, perhaps, for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hastily remodeled synagogue eschews the open balcony model for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services.

The more the charming but duplicitous Rabbi David’s ultra-orthodox slip begins to show, the less enthralled are the women, who eventually find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. Still, they must step lightly; with marriages and long-time friendships on the rocks (much less the future of their once harmonious congregation) there’s much at stake.

This formidable coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts (Israeli comedian Orna Banai, in her first major screen role; popular Israeli singer Einat Sarouf, making her film debut; acclaimed Moroccan-born actress Evelin Hagoel; actress-comedian Yafit Asulin) who deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.

How this extended family resolves their fractious row is relayed with compassion and astute observation, steeped in what I once described in a review as “…a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).” That said (if I may re-appropriate a classic advertising slogan) “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” or in this case, to love Ben-Shimon and Nehama’s real Jewish wryness.

Blu-ray reissue: The Loved One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Loved One – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

In 1965, this black comedy/social satire was billed as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” By today’s standards, it’s relatively tame (but still pretty sick). Robert Morse plays a befuddled Englishman struggling to process the madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood studio.

Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable mortuary cosmetician (Anjanette Comer), gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically reacts to all the various whack-jobs he encounters. The wildly eclectic cast includes Jonathan Winters (in three roles), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Liberace, Paul Williams and Rod Steiger (as Mr. Joyboy!). Tony Richardson directed; the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel. No extras on this edition, but the high-definition transfer is good.

Blu-ray reissue: Multiple Maniacs ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Multiple Maniacs – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Warning: This 1970 trash classic from czar of bad taste John Waters is definitely not for the pious, easily offended or the faint of heart. A long out-of-print VHS edition aside, it has been conspicuously absent from home video…until now. Thank (or blame) The Criterion Collection, who have meticulously restored the film back to all of its original B&W 16mm glory (well, almost…there’s grumbling from purists about the “new” music soundtrack, reportedly precipitated by the prohibitive costs of securing music rights for some of the tracks that were “borrowed” by Waters for his original cut).

The one and only Divine heads the cast who became Waters’ faithful “Dreamland” repertory (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, etc.) in a tale of mayhem, filth and blasphemy too shocking to discuss in mixed company (you’ll never see a Passion Play the same way).

Watching this the other day for the first time in several decades, I was suddenly struck by the similarities with the contemporaneous films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder (Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague in particular). Once you get past its inherent shock value, Multiple Maniacs is very much an American art film. Extras include a typically hilarious commentary track by Waters.