Category Archives: Road Movie

Blu-ray reissue: Stranger Than Paradise (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Stranger Than Paradise – Criterion Collection

With this 1984 indie classic, Jim Jarmusch established his formula of long takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, evoking strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

Criterion’s restoration is beautiful. Extras include commentary by Jarmusch and Edson, and Jarmusch’s 1980 color feature debut Permanent Vacation (also restored).

Blu-ray reissue: Detour (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Detour – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. This is the “one” that hardcore film noir aficionados have been praying for “someone” to properly restore, and Criterion has delivered in spades (the movie had been languishing in “public domain” for years, precipitating a seemingly infinite number of fuzzy home video iterations of varyingly horrid quality).

Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

I cannot say enough about the 4K digital restoration…it is a revelation and should help the film garner a new generation of fans (I also suspect that  aspiring filmmakers can learn much about how to do more with less by studying it!).

SIFF 2019: The Hitch-Hiker (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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46% of this year’s SIFF selections are by female directors, as are 56% of the 2019 competition films (ratios which should be industry-wide, not relegated to the festival circuit). As part of this emphasis, SIFF is presenting two restored gems from pioneering actor-director Ida Lupino.

This 1953 film noir is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).

SIFF 2019: Eastern Memories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Using excerpts from 100 year-old journals by Finnish linguist G.J. Ramstedt as a narrative, directors Niklas Kullstrom and Martti Kaartinen retrace his experiences in two countries. He was sent to Mongolia to study and compile a written record of the language, then was later assigned to a diplomatic post in Japan-where he studied the Korean language (I know-a little confusing).

While his studies were primarily academic, his journals reflected a more subjective take on the geography and people of the respective countries. The directors juxtapose Ramstedt’s century-old musings with modern travelogues of the locations he wrote about. Despite the intriguing premise, the film is deadly dull in execution-not helped by dry and perfunctory narration.

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

Goin’ mobile: Top 10 road movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2018)

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With the summer travel season just ahead, I thought I would address those stirrings of wanderlust we get this time of year by sharing my picks for the Top 10 road movies…

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Five Easy Pieces – “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s. Nicholson portrays an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who nonetheless prefers to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs. Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. And don’t forget where to hold the chicken salad…

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Genevieve-A marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle 1953 film centers on the travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.

Colorful, droll, and engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s onscreen chemistry. Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

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Lost in America –Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch yet so painfully funny (I consider him the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).

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Motorama – This darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey nearly defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.

As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock: The Movie.

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Powwow Highway – A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Kings of the Road—Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon  a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have lots of screen time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of grows on you. A lot.

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Sullivan’s Travels – A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).

He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Trip – Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.

The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.

This setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. The director and both stars reunited for two equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017).

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Vanishing Point – I don’t know if there was a sudden spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the, erm, challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.

Not much of a plot but riveting nonetheless. Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who becomes Kowalski’s guardian angel and a sort of Greek Chorus for the viewer. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is as painfully funny as it is to watch it (I consider him the founding father of  the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”). Criterion’s extras are skimpy, but the 2K restoration is fabulous.

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Detail ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Last Detail – Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This edition sports a fabulous 4K restoration (the audio is cleaned up too, crucial for a dialog-driven piece like this). Loads of extras-including a sanitized TV cut of the film, just for giggles.

SIFF 2017: Lane 1974 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This episodic road movie/coming of age story may be too episodic for some tastes, but for those of a certain age (ahem), it hearkens back to the quietly observant character studies that flourished from the late 60s through the mid-70s  like Scarecrow, The Rain People, and Harry and Tonto. Writer-director SJ Chiro adapted her screenplay from Clane Hayward’s memoir. 13 year-old Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss), her little brother, and their narcissistic hippie-dippy mom (Ray Donovan’s Katherine Moennig) adopt a vagabond lifestyle after they’re kicked out of a Northern California commune. Schloss delivers a lovely, naturalistic performance as a budding adolescent coming to the sad realization that she is the responsible adult in the family, and that her mother is essentially the self-centered child.