Category Archives: Road Movie

Long strange trip: 10 Offbeat Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2022)

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Sam: If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

— from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

With Memorial Day weekend looming and a creeping sentiment among many (but not all) Americans that the pandemic is, erm …”behind us”, it looks like highways and sky ways are going to be absolutely packed to the gills this travel season. Via the AAA Newsroom:

The unofficial start to summer will be a busy one this year as AAA predicts 39.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend. This is an increase of 8.3% over 2021, bringing travel volumes almost in line with those in 2017. Air travel continues to rebound, up 25% over last year, the second-largest increase since 2010. With volumes closing in on pre-pandemic levels, AAA urges travelers to book now and remember flexibility is key this Memorial Day weekend.

“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months.

Air travel volume, which began to rally last Thanksgiving, will hit levels just shy of 2019 with 3 million people expected to take to the skies this Memorial Day weekend. In fact, the percentage of people traveling by air will surpass 2019 levels with 7.7% of travelers choosing air travel as their preferred mode (it was 7.5% in 2019).

“Air travel has faced several challenges since the beginning of the year,” continued Twidale. “With the type of volume we anticipate, we continue to recommend the safety net of a travel agent and travel insurance. Both are a lifesaver if something unexpectedly derails your travel plans.

Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the busiest in two years, building on an upward trend that began earlier this spring. This year’s forecast marks the second-highest single-year increase in travelers since 2010 (2021 was the highest), bringing volumes almost in line with pre-pandemic levels. Despite historic gas prices, breaching the $4 mark in early March, 34.9 million people plan to travel by car, up 4.6% over last year. A greater portion of travelers are opting for air and other modes of travel than in previous years. Share of car travel fell from 92.1% last year to 88.9% this year, a slight indication that higher prices at the pump are having an impact on how people choose to travel this Memorial Day. Regardless of which mode they choose, travelers should prepare for a busy holiday weekend.

That’s nice, but about those full flights…how are things going with air travel, now that that masking on planes is no longer mandated? Via Jonathan Wolfe in the New York Times:

[Quoting travel columnist Seth Kugel] I still recommend an N95 mask for travel. But you should also keep in mind that things are changing. I just took a flight from St. Louis to New York, and the pilot said something like, “Federal regulations no longer require you to use a mask. Please respect your fellow travelers’ choices.”

Everyone who has been pro-mask has been snidely commenting on the people who don’t wear masks for a long time, and vice versa. This pilot was saying: That’s over now.

There are fewer and fewer people who are masked on flights, and that’s just going to be the price of travel. People around you are going to be eating. They may be coughing, and you just can’t get mad at them. It’s no longer fair to do that, and it could ruin your own trip. Don’t travel if you are going to go crazy when other people don’t wear masks.

Everyone has to respect other people’s decisions for now. That’s good practice for travel anyway. When you travel, you can’t be as judgmental.

I reserve the right to be judgemental (“snidely commenting” is one of life’s greatest pleasures) …so speaking for myself, Mr. Frodo-if I take one more step beyond the grocery store, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been since early 2020. Being cautiously optimistic, I’ll stick with a “stay-cation” for Memorial Day weekend.

I do still plan on hitting the road though, via the magic of cinema. If you’d care to ride along, here are 10 road movies off the beaten path, but still well worth the trip.

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Badlands – With barely a dozen feature-length projects over nearly 50 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

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Detour – Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. 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.

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The Hit – Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

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The Hitch-hiker – This 1953 film noir (directed by Ida Lupino) 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).

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Race with the Devil – In this 1975 thriller, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

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Salesman – 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.

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Stranger Than Paradise – With this 1984 indie, Jim Jarmusch established his formula: long static takes with 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, unveiling a strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

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Until the End of the World – Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure . However, to see it as originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along-which is why I highly recommend the recently restored 267-minute director’s cut. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

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Wanda – This 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama is an under-seen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. 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.

When the judge scolds her for being late to a child custody hearing, 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 her purse. Her long, strange road trip is only beginning.

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. A unique, unforgettable, and groundbreaking film. (Full review).

SIFF 2022: Day by Day (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Felix Herngren’s dramedy (scripted by Tapio Leopold) is a delightful, life-affirming road movie about…death. Before a terminally ill man (Sven Wallter) can make his getaway for a solo trip to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic, several of his longtime friends at the retirement home catch wind of his plans, and it turns into a group outing (much to his chagrin). Lovely European travelogue (nicely photographed by Viktor Davidson). Funny and touching (yes …I laughed, I cried). Sadly, Wallter passed away soon after the film wrapped, adding poignancy to his performance.

SIFF 2022: The Passenger (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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I’m not really a gore fan, so I did not expect Raul Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez’s sci-fi/horror road movie to be so…fun. A self-employed shuttle driver and his three female passengers unwittingly take a parasitic alien onboard, and all hell breaks loose. Luis Sánchez-Polack’s screenplay is clever and frequently hilarious, with subtle undercurrents of social satire amid the mayhem. Think Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

When you’re young: The Pebble and the Boy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2021)

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Reporter : Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo : Um, no. I’m a mocker.

-from A Hard Day’s Night, screenplay by Alun Owen

Having grown up in the colonies, I didn’t grok “Mods and Rockers” until 1973, the year I bought The Who’s Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s paean to the teenage Mod subculture that flourished in the U.K. from the late 50s to mid-60s. The Mods had very distinct musical preferences (jazz, ska, R&B, soul), couture, and modes of transportation:

My jacket’s gonna be cut slim and checked
Maybe a touch of seersucker with an open neck
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat
I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet

– from “Sea and Sand”, by The Who

On occasion the Mods would rumble with members of another youth subculture who identified as “Rockers”. They were not as tailored as the Mods but had their own uniforms…let’s just say that they were into leather (as in Tuscadero), motorcycles (as opposed to scooters), and 50s rock (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, et.al.).

Here come duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
She’s tehone with the flying feet
You can break the peace daddy sickle grease
The beat is reet complete

– from “Sweet Gene Vincent”, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

By the time the Who were rhapsodizing about the Mods in their 1973 rock opera, the movement was all but relegated to the dustbins of history. In 1979, Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of Quadrophenia was released. Using the 1964 Brighton “youth riots” as a catalyst, Roddam fashioned a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the U.K. in the early 60s. Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s songs.

Here is where it gets interesting. Not long after Roddam’s film began to build a cult following in the U.K., a Mod revival took hold. It may be more accurate to call it a “post” Mod movement, as this iteration was more about co-opting the couture than embracing the culture. Did the film inspire this revival? Some have suggested it did.

While the Who was the band of choice for the original Mods, the 80s Mods embraced bands like The Jam, Secret Affair, and The Chords. Not coincidentally, all 3 of those bands are on the soundtrack for writer-director Chris Green’s comedy-drama The Pebble and the Boy.

19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent unfortunate demise in a traffic accident. John not only inherits his father’s house (his parents are divorced), but his Lambretta scooter, fully bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Coming home after the funeral, John contemplates his father’s bedroom, which is done up like a shrine to The Jam (John only likes “one of their songs”).

Initially, John puts the Lambretta up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter his father’s ashes in the sea.

Not long after he leaves Manchester, the scooter displays signs of needing a tune-up, so he looks up one his father’s pals from the Mod days (“Your dad and I first met at a Jam gig in ’81,” he reminisces to John). When his outgoing daughter Nicki (scene-stealer Sacha Parkinson) learns John has Paul Weller tickets, she invites herself along (she has her own scooter). After a few road trip misadventures (usually instigated by the free-spirited Nicki), the pair find themselves short of funds for completing their journey.

The more reserved John wants to turn back, but Nicki suggests they stop in nearby Woking (the Jam’s hometown, of course) to borrow money from Ronnie (Ricci Harnett), another of John’s father’s friends from the Mod days. The somewhat surly Ronnie and his, uh …friendly wife (Patsy Kensit) invite them to stay the night. The next day, John and Nicki hit the road to Brighton, now joined by Ronnie’s oddball son Logan (Max Boast).

Green’s film is like a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth in the way he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor (even when someone says, “Fuck off!” it’s so good natured, somehow). McNamee is an appealing lead (he reminds me of the young Timothy Hutton), but it’s Parkinson’s sly performance as the endearingly boisterous Nicki that kicks the film up a notch. Rubber-faced Boast is another discovery; he’s a riot.

The bucolic English countryside and Brighton seascapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Max Williams (not too surprising after seeing that his previous credits include documentaries for Discovery, National Geographic and the BBC). Add a great soundtrack, and The Pebble and the Boy emerges as one of my favorite films of 2021.

“The Pebble and the Boy” premieres November 16 on various digital platforms.

Blu-ray reissue: Radio On (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Radio On (BFI; be advised that this Blu-ray is Region “B” locked)

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 monochrome 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.

BFI’s reissue package is a dream come true for admirers of the film (I am a full-fledged cult member). The new 4K restoration was struck from the original camera negative, and it looks amazing. Audio quality is outstanding as well (especially important with that great music soundtrack). There are hours of extras; the most interesting one for me is a new 52-minute feature called “A Little bit Kitsch, But Ice Cold: Retro-futurism in Focus” an enlightening retrospective with director Petit and BFI Video Publishing’s Vic Pratt (a super-fan of the film).

Tribeca 2021: Wild Men (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Every film festival has at least one quirky road movie (it’s a rule). Danish director Thomas Daneskov’s (wait for it) quirky road movie concerns Martin, a white-collar worker who flips his lid and heads to the Norwegian hinterlands to gather nuts and berries (sans wife and kids). After a day or two, failing to bring down any wild game with his homemade bow and arrow, he’s craving protein and heads for the nearest convenience store (looking like a cross between Dilbert and Hagar the Horrible). Unfortunately, he’s forgotten his wallet and despite honest intentions ends up in an altercation with the manager and ultimately on the run from the cops. Fate puts him on a path with an injured drug runner, and a male bonding/buddy film ensues. An entertaining dramedy with a Coen Brothers vibe, mixed with typically deadpan Scandinavian humor.

SIFF 2021: Ladies of Steel (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Finnish humor is not for everybody, as it leans toward deadpan (think Jim Jarmusch, who cites Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki as an influence). This road movie/dramedy from director Pamela Tola (co-written with Aleksi Bardy) is a kind of a geriatric take on Thelma and Louise.

Fearing that she has killed her husband after beaning him with a frying pan during an argument, a 70-ish woman named Inkeri (Leena Uotila) panics and hits the road with her two older sisters in tow. Misadventures ensue…including sexual, which is not something you see onscreen very often with actors of “a certain age”. Truth be told…there is something actually quite wonderful and liberating about it.

Blu-ray reissue: The Hit (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Hit – Criterion Collection

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

Criterion’s Blu-ray delivers a noticeable upgrade in image quality (the transfer was approved by DP Mike Molloy). Audio commentary from Criterion’s 2009 DVD has been ported over, featuring director Stephen Frears, actors Hurt and Roth, screenwriter Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley. Extras include an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

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

Dennis Hartley

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

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A Little Romance – Warner Archives

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

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

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

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