Category Archives: Social Satire

Just drifting: R.I.P. Buck Henry

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?

Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.

Mr. Braddock: Why?

Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.

Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?

Benjamin: No.

Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Benjamin: You got me.

– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast.  He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).

Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.

For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria, Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).

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Candy As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.

What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.

Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.

Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.

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Catch-22

Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.

Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.

Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet…Buck Henry did a pretty good job of condensing it into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a great director (Mike Nichols) and such a fabulous cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50-year-old film has improved with age.

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Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).

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The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.

Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).

This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).

Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. 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). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.

Blu-ray reissue: Local Hero ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Local Hero – Spirit Entertainment (Region “B” Blu-ray)

This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth has been on my Blu-ray wish list for many years. I was beginning to despair that I was waiting in vain for “someone” to do a restoration/HD upgrade…and bam! Two studios simultaneously release 2K digital restorations on Blu-ray in 2019 (more on my dilemma in a moment).

Peter Reigert is perfectly cast as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on the edge of an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with all the local property owners and essentially buy out the entire town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

Full disclosure: I can only base my assessment of image quality on the disc that I own, which is from the UK outfit Spirit Entertainment (please note it is Region “B” locked). As mentioned earlier, this is a new 2K restoration, and it’s breathtaking (it’s a beautiful looking film to begin with).

Now, the “other” studio who has put out an edition of the film is The Criterion Collection. I have not viewed their edition, but based on their product description, I can safely assume that their 2K transfer is from the same recently struck restoration. Both editions have good extra features (several of them duplicate), but what swayed me to the Spirit Entertainment version was a new 2019 interview with Mark Knopfler (which the Criterion edition does not contain) discussing his classic soundtrack.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The Landlord – Kino-Lorber

Hal Ashby’s 1970 social satire follows the travails of a trustafarian (Beau Bridges) who buys a run-down Brooklyn tenement, with initial intentions to evict current residents and renovate (much to the chagrin of his blue-blood parents, who scoff at his “liberal views”). The landlord’s sincere but awkward attempts to “relate” to his black tenants is sometimes milked for laughs, other times for dramatic tension-but always rings true-to-life.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring Lou Gossett (with hair!), Susan Anspach (hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister) and Diana Sands. The scene where Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant get drunk and bond over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a classic. Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn’s observations about race relations in America are dead-on (and still timely).

Image transfer is sharp. Extras include interviews with Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, and producer Norman Jewison.

Blu-ray reissue: True Stories ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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True Stories – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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 social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment.

Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps- but for some reason, I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t even explain.

Finally, “Someone” (in this case, Criterion) has done justice to Lachman’s lovely cinematography by giving this film a properly matted 1:85:1 transfer (for years, the only version available on home video was a dismal “pan and scan” DVD). The newly restored 4K transfer was supervised by Byrne and Lachman, and it’s gorgeous.

The 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio also lends a crucial upgrade to the soundtrack quality (all those great Talking Heads songs really pop now!). Extras include a CD of the complete music soundtrack, deleted scenes, written essays, and documentary shorts (new and archival).

Blu-ray reissue: Shampoo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Shampoo– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie).

Beatty allegedly based his character of “George” on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings).

This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 4K restoration (previous DVDs have been less than stellar in picture and sound quality). Extras include a conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich and a 1998 TV interview with Warren Beatty from The South Bank Show.

Blu-ray reissue: Little Murders ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Little Murders – Indicator Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This dark, dark comedy from 1971 is one of my all-time favorite films. It was directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own self-described “post-assassination play” (referring to the then-relatively recent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy). That said, it is not wholly political; but it is sociopolitical (I see it as the pre-cursor to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network).

Elliot Gould is at the peak of his Elliot Gould-ness as a nihilistic (and seemingly brain-dead) free-lance photographer who is essentially browbeaten into a love affair with an effervescent sunny side-up young woman (Marcia Rodd) who is bound and determined to snap him out of his torpor. The story follows the travails of this oil and water couple as they slog through a dystopian New York City chock full o’ nuts, urban blight, indifference and random shocking acts of senseless violence (you know…New York City in the 70s).

There are so many memorable vignettes, and nearly every cast member gets a Howard Beale-worthy monologue on how fucked-up American society is (and remember…this was 1971). Disturbingly, it remains relevant as ever. But it is very funny. No, seriously. The cast includes Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi (who has the best monolog) and Donald Sutherland. Arkin is a riot as a homicide investigator.

Indicator’s limited-edition Blu-ray features a gorgeous high-definition remaster (please note that it is a Region ‘B’ locked disc that requires a multi-region player). A plethora of extras includes a 2004 audio commentary with Gould and Feiffer, an alternate commentary track from 2018 by film journalist Samm Deighan, new and archival featurettes, interviews, and critical re-appraisals, a 40-page booklet of essays, and more.

Blu-ray reissue: King of Hearts ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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King of Hearts – Cohen Film Collection/Sony Blu-ray

The utter madness of war has rarely been conveyed in such a succinct (or oddly endearing) manner as in Philippe de Broca’s absurdist adult fable. Alan Bates stars as a WW1 Scottish army private sent ahead of his advancing company to a rural French village, where he is to locate and disarm a bomb that has been set by retreating Germans.

His mission is interrupted when he is suddenly set upon by a coterie of loopy and highly theatrical residents who (literally) sweep him off his feet and jovially inform him he is now their “king”. These happy-go-lucky folks are, in fact, inmates of the local asylum, who have occupied the town since the residents fled. The battle-weary private decides to humor them, in the meantime brainstorming how he can coax them out of harm’s way before the war inevitably intrudes once again.

It’s wonderful to have a newly-restored 4K scan of this cult favorite, which has been previously difficult to track down on home video. Extras include a feature-length commentary track by film critic Wade Major, a new conversation with the film’s leading lady Genevieve Bujold, and a new conversation with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.

Blu-ray reissue: Female Trouble (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

Image result for female troubleFemale Trouble – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The late great Divine chews up major scenery as Dawn Davenport, a “good girl gone bad” …in the worst ways imaginable. Parents be cautioned: if your teenage daughter demands cha-cha heels for Christmas…for God’s sake, humor her–or there will be hell to pay.

Even by his own mondo bizzaro standards, “czar of bad taste” John Waters has seldom topped the utter depravity of this mordantly hilarious 1974 entry. That said, our “reality” continues to catch up with his once-satirical, hyper-real vision of an American society completely driven by narcissism, an unhealthy obsession with the cult of celebrity, and self-aggrandizement at any cost. A trash classic.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition features a restored 4K transfer; the film (shot on 16mm) has never looked more vivid (which might not necessarily be a good thing for squeamish viewers, who may spend some time afterwards wishing they could “un-see” certain scenes). Nonetheless, aficionados will be delighted by the generous piles of extras, including a commentary track (recorded in 2004) by the ever-chatty and vastly entertaining Waters, new and archival interviews with cast members, outtakes, and more.

Beguilingly mondo: The Misandrists (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2018)

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If you were to stuff Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, and John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented in a blender, the result would be along the lines of Bruce La Bruce’s “best seen through your fingers” sociopolitical satire.

Truth be told, a quick insert or two of genital surgery footage and hard-core gay porno clips aside (“Not that there is anything wrong with that!” to paraphrase Seinfeld), I was able to get though most of The Misandrists without having to watch through my fingers (I feel it my duty as a film critic to caution sensitive and/or squeamish viewers up front).

La Bruce’s film opens playfully enough (in the year 1999), with two young women amorously frolicking in a field. It’s all fun and games until they stumble upon a grievously wounded anti-corporatist leftist who is fleeing from the law. He begs for help. The young man’s unexpected appearance not only disrupts the couple’s rapturous state of Sapphic bliss but ignites hotly contentious debate over whether they should help him out.

Compassion wins out, and the pair surreptitiously squirrel the young man away in the cellar of their rambling, somewhat gothic girl’s school. This isn’t just any girl’s school; it is the “stronghold” of The Female Liberation Army, lorded over by a Strangelovian headmistress addressed as Big Mother. Big Mother has big plans-namely, to snip the “man” from “mankind” and establish a dominant female world order. She demands her girls stay focused and in peak shape and does not suffer “laggards” gladly (is she strict!).

Big Mother’s Doomsday Machine? A camera, some lights, and some hot girl-on-girl action. If all goes as planned, she and her girls will produce, direct and distribute lesbian porno movies that are so autonomously beautiful and liberating that the world will come to its senses and realize how superfluous men are, after all. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and radical feminist terrorist cells. Obviously, the potential discovery of the young man convalescing in their midst is a ticking time bomb.

La Bruce’s mélange of retro radical chic, feminist revenge fantasy, broad political satire and in-your-face campiness has flashes of inspiration; however much of it seems ladled on purely for shock value, or as a patch-over for lazy screenwriting. Still, I would not necessarily discourage dedicated fans of outsider cinema, nor open-minded filmgoers seeking out a true alternative to standard summer blockbuster fare from giving it a peek.

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.