Category Archives: Social Satire

Blu-ray reissue: Pink Flamingos (***)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Pink Flamingos (Criterion)

“Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of “bad taste” John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man) Divine was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her skuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work and want to explore his truly indie “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of his oeuvre.

Criterion has really gone all out for this belated Blu-ray reissue, from the faux “plain brown package” cover art (replete with a mail label addressed to “Babs Johnson, A Trailer, Phoenix, MD”) to a generous helping of extras. The 4K restoration looks great (probably a little too sharp and detailed for many scenes!). There are two audio commentaries by Waters; one from the 1997 Criterion laser disc and the other from the 2001 DVD (per usual, he is never at a loss for words). Also: deleted scenes, essays, and an entertaining (new) conversation between Waters and Jim Jarmusch.

Tribeca 2022: Nude Tuesday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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I must warn you: this film is complete gibberish. Literally…the dialog is spoken in a made-up language. Frankly, I was fully prepared to find this gimmick annoying, but thankfully a) there are subtitles and b) the film is nonetheless entertaining.

Writer-director Armagan Ballantyne’s off-the wall dramedy concerns middle-aged couple Laura and Bruno (co-screenwriter Jackie van Beek and Damon Harriman), who have hit a roadblock in their marriage. Bruno’s mother browbeats them into attending a couple’s retreat, to rekindle their passion. The resort is lorded over by a free-spirited sex guru (played with aplomb by Jemaine Clement). Vacillating between riotous cringe comedy and surprising sweetness, the film also pokes gentle fun at “self-actualization” culture (reminiscent of Bill Persky’s 1980 satire Serial).

Tribeca 2022: We Might As Well Be Dead **½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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We might as well be deadpan. Natalia Sinelnikova’s (political satire? black comedy? psychological thriller?) was a puzzler for me.  Or maybe it caught me on a bad day. An insular community of apartment building residents turn on each other after one resident’s dog goes missing. The building’s live-in security person (Ioana Iacob) desperately tries to corral the creeping paranoia and hysteria.

Her stress is exacerbated by her daughter, who has locked herself in the bathroom and informed Mom that she has “the evil eye” and is cursed by effective thoughts and dreams. While Sinelnikova and co-screenwriter Viktor Gallandi make intriguing allusions to Stasi-era East Germany and the Jewish diaspora, the film never gels; at best, it’s a glorified remake of the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

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.

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 15, 2022)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric that spouted from the Former Occupant of the White House, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on display in Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)–“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) the late Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was ostensibly the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)–Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There).

In The Landlord, Beau Bridges plays a trustafarian with “liberal views” that his conservative parents find troubling…especially after he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. Moses Gunn’s sharp screenplay was adapted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet also entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

Judas and the Black Messiah

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Trial of the Chicago 7

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous People’s Day

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

Blu-ray reissue: Rancho Deluxe (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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Rancho Deluxe (Fun City Editions)

This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Loose and episodic…just like life on the range, I’d reckon (with the odd bit of toking up and kinky sex tossed in just for giggles).

Wonderful ensemble work from a cast that includes Elizabeth Ashley, Slim Pickens, Clifton James, Charlene Dallas, Patti D’Arbanville, Richard Bright and the late great Harry Dean Stanton (memorable as a love-struck cow hand).

One of the “stars” of the film is Willam A. Fraker’s cinematography, which didn’t get its proper due on the lackluster MGM DVD released in 2000. Fun City Edition’s transfer is a new 2K restoration taken from the 35mm interpostive, and it really makes those gorgeous “big sky” Montana locales pop. Extras include commentary by Nick Pinkerton, a new 20-minute interview with Bridges, and a 10-minute chat with McGuane.

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.

Tribeca 2021: Poser (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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All About Eve for millennials. Co-directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s dark satire centers on an Ohio-based emo chick named erm…“Lennon” (Aujolie Baker) with vague aspirations to become a songwriter who (when not working at her dreary dishwasher gig) buzzes around the fringes of the Columbus underground scene, ostensibly to do “research” for her podcast (that may or may not have followers).

Sullen and deadpan, it’s no wonder that Lennon doesn’t have any friends. However, once she ingratiates herself with a darling of the local indie music scene (Bobbi Kitten) she begins to emerge from her shell…in a rather discomfiting way. What ensues is a cross between the (far superior) underground scene satire The Last Big Thing and Single White Female.

Blu-ray Reissue: Britannia Hospital (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Britannia Hospital – Indicator Limited Edition (Region “B” locked)

This 1982 satire (a wild mashup of The Hospital, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Magic Christian) was the final third of iconoclastic UK writer-director Lindsay Anderson’s loosely-linked “Mick Travis” trilogy. Malcolm McDowell reprises his role as Travis, the protagonist of If…. (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973).

Anderson’s satirical targets are less defined than in the previous two films, resulting in a broad take-down of everything from the U.K.’s National Health system to corporate culture, royalty, classism and ineffectual politicos. Still, it succeeds as a two-fingered salute to Thatcherism (considering the year it came out). Huge cast; many returning from the previous films. Weirdest casting: Mark Hamill!

Indicator’s Blu-ray is a limited edition (3,000 copies) and Region “B” locked (requires a region-free player). The high-definition remastering is pristine. I have not had a chance to plow through all the extras yet, but they are plentiful. There are newly produced interviews with several participants in the production, as well as a 117-minute 1991 interview with the late director (audio only) produced as part of The British History Project.