Category Archives: Writers

SIFF 2018: The Crime of Monsieur Lange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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With its central themes regarding exploited workers and the opportunistic, predatory habits of men in power, this rarely-presented and newly restored 1936 film by the great Jean Renoir (La Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) plays like a prescient social justice revenge fantasy custom-tailored for our times. A struggling pulp western writer who works for a scuzzy, exploitative Harvey Weinstein-like publisher takes on his corrupt boss by forming a worker’s collective. While it is essentially a sociopolitical noir, the numerous romantic subplots, snappy pre-Code patter, busy multi-character shots and the restless camera presages His Girl Friday.

SIFF 2018: Every Act of Life ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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I’m not really a theater person (some of my best friends are…does that count?), so I confess I’ve only seen one of playwright/librettist Terrence McNally’s works (the movie version of The Ritz-which I love). That said, I found Jeff Kaufman’s doc about the writer and gay activist very enlightening. The film tells his life story, from small-town Texas roots to his inevitable trek to NYC to conquer Broadway. Fascinating archival footage, plus colorful anecdotes from the likes of Nathan Lane (one of McNally’s latter-day acting muses), Rita Moreno, Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston, all topped off by candid reminiscences from McNally (still going strong at 79).

SIFF 2018: Hot Mess ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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I’ll confess, I go into any film labelled as a “mumblecore slacker comedy” with a bit of “old man yelling at whiny millennials to get off his lawn” trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had watching writer-director Lucy Coleman’s, uh, mumblecore slacker comedy from Down Under.

Comedian-playwright Sarah Gaul is endearing as a 25 year-old budding playwright and college dropout who suffers from a perennial lack of focus, both in her artistic and amorous pursuits. For example, she expends an inordinate amount of her creative juice composing songs about Toxic Shock Syndrome. She becomes obsessed with a divorced guy who seems “nice” but treats her with increasing indifference once they’ve slept together. And so on. The narrative is…lax, and the film meanders, but there are a lot of belly laughs. Stay with those closing credits, or you’ll miss “The Tampon Song” (I couldn’t breathe).

Don’t stand so close to me: Submission (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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While it was likely in production before the “Me Too” movement took hold, writer-director Richard Levine’s Submission feels tailor-made for the current conversation regarding sex, power and patriarchy in the workplace; in this case, the world of academia.

Based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel “Blue Angel” (itself a modern re-imagining of the narrative driving the eponymous 1930 Josef von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings), Submission stars Stanley Tucci as Ted Swensen, a liberal arts college professor who teaches writing. A walking cliché, Ted is a blocked novelist whose one acclaimed work (a novel called “The Blue Angel”, surprise surprise) is long behind him.

As Woody Allen once said, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” And so Ted has resigned himself to a life of tenured security and quiet desperation. You could say the same about his marriage. He has a loving wife (Kyra Sedgewick), who empathizes with his droll assessments of dreaded soirées with his stuffy colleagues. Their marriage is cozy, if not remarkable; it’s comfortable, like a favored pair of worn slippers.

You’re beginning to wonder when that boulder is going to crash through the window to break up all of this monotony and knock the dust off Ted’s typewriter keys, aren’t you?

Her name is Angela (Addison Timlin), a new pupil in Ted’s class. At first appearing sullen and withdrawn, Angela’s demeanor noticeably brightens once she’s one-on-one with Ted after class. When she showers praise on “The Blue Angel”, Ted is flattered, but keeps his tone cautiously neutral as he agrees to read over the “first chapter” of her novel.

Ted’s skepticism vanishes as he realizes Angela’s writing is not only much better than he expected; it demonstrates a remarkably developed voice for a person of her age. He casually asks her if she has any more pages that he can look over, and critique. Of course she does. The hook is set. However, the question soon becomes: who is reeling in whom?

While we’ve seen this movie before (it’s a little bit Educating Rita, a bit more of All About Eve, and a whole lotta Election), it is bolstered by strong performances from Tucci and Timlin, as well as by the supporting cast. As I noted at the top of the review, I don’t think that this film was consciously intended as a nod to “woke” culture, but we’ll take it.

SIFF 2017: Endless Poetry ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Writer’s block: Top 10 films about writers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 29, 2017)

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With the possibility of a Writer’s Guild strike looming over the entertainment industry this week, I’ve been pondering myriad films I have seen that are about screenwriters, novelists, journalists, poets, and playwrights. Here are 10 cinematic page-turners for you:

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American SplendorFrom the streets of Cleveland! Paul Giamatti was born to play underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, the misanthropic file clerk/armchair philosopher who became a cult figure after collaborating with legendary comic illustrator R. Crumb on some classic strips. Co-directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini keep their film fresh and engaging using imaginative visual devices and by breaking down the “fourth wall”. A virtually unrecognizable Hope Davis gives a great turn as Pekar’s deadpan wife.

Written by: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, and Robert Pulcini

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An Angel at My Table-Jane Campion directed this incredibly moving story of successful New Zealand novelist Janet Frame (beautifully played at various stages of her life by three actresses, most notably Kerry Fox). When she was a young woman, her social phobia and generalized anxiety was misdiagnosed as a serious mental illness and she ended up spending nearly a decade in and out of institutions. Not for the faint of heart.

Written by: Janet Frame and Laura Jones.

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Barfly-It’s the battle of the quirky method actors as Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway guzzle rye and wax wry in this booze-soaked dark comedy, based on the experiences of writer/poet Charles Bukowski. The film is quite richly drawn, right down to the smallest bit parts. Look for Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank as a bartender who repeatedly beats the crap out of Rourke (I’d bet Rourke could take him in a real-life scrap!). If you’re up for a double feature, I’d suggest the compelling documentary Bukowski: Born into This.

Written by: Charles Bukowski.

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The Front-Directed by Martin Ritt, this downbeat yet politically rousing tale uses the entertainment industry’s spurious McCarthy era blacklist as a backdrop. Woody Allen is very effective as a semi-literate bookie who ends up “fronting” for several blacklisted TV writers. Zero Mostel is brilliant in a tragicomic performance (Mostel, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and several other participants in the film actually were blacklisted in real life).

Written by: Walter Bernstein.

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Hearts of the West-Jeff Bridges gives a winning performance as a rube from Iowa, a wannabe pulp western writer with the unlikely name of “Lewis Tater” (the scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) Tater gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out west”. Serendipity lands him a job as a stuntman in 1930s Hollywood westerns. Featuring one of Andy Griffith’s best screen performances. Alan Arkin is a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director. Excellent direction by Howard Zieff.

Written by: Rob Thompson.

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Henry and June– Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as the gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the time period that Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the frequent nudity and focus on eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted, fascinating character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Directed by Philip Kaufman.

Written by: Anais Nin, Philip Kaufman, and Rose Kaufman.

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In a Lonely Place – It’s apropos that a film about a writer would contain a soliloquy that any writer would kill to have written: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay (it helps his process).

At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect (mostly due to his unflagging wisecracking). An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in at a crucial moment to give him an unsolicited alibi (and really spice things up).

A marvelous film noir, directed by the great Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent script (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes) that is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right up until the end. It’s a precursor (of sorts) to Basic Instinct (or it could have been a direct influence, for all I know).

Written by: Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North (from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes).

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The Owl and the Pussycat-George Segal is a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is 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!”

Written by: Bill Manhoff and Buck Henry.

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Prick Up Your Ears-Gary Oldman chews major scenery in this biopic about British playwright Joe Orton, who lived fast and died young. Alfred Molina nearly steals the film as Orton’s lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell was a middling writer who had a complex, love-hate obsession with his partner’s effortless artistic gifts (you might say he played Salieri to Orton’s Mozart). This obsession led to a shocking and heartbreaking tragedy. Director Stephen Frears captures the exuberance of “swinging” 1960s London to a tee.

Written by: Alan Bennett and John Lahr.

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Reuben, Reuben-Director Robert Ellis Miller’s underrated gem (from 1983) features Tom Conti as a boozing, womanizing Scottish poet (reminiscent of Sean Connery’s character in the 1966 satire A Fine Madness). Conti’s character (he’s not “Reuben”, incidentally) spends more time getting himself in trouble than writing poetry, and is always on the prowl for wealthy patrons. The inspiration for the enigmatic title isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film. Also with Kelly McGillis (in her film debut).

Written by: Peter De Vries, Herman Shumlin, and Julius J. Epstein.

Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But alas, it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or at construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is largely on the money whenever he interjects contemporary images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, at the end of the day they were produced by white liberals, to be exclusively consumed by other white liberals, who could then pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (unless I was reading him wrong). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a bit of a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top of my review that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it another retread “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although its history is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin was not an active participant in the literal sense (which he admits in some excerpts), yet he was wholly present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator.

And indeed it is these insights and observations that stay with you after the lights come up. In a way it makes me sad that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate, because it serves to remind that while we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never really went away. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Blu-ray reissue: In A Lonely Place ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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In a Lonely Place – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

 It’s apropos that a film about a writer would contain a soliloquy that any writer would kill to have written: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay (it helps his process).

At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect (mostly due to his unflagging wisecracking). An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in at a crucial moment to give him an unsolicited alibi (and really spice things up).

A marvelous film noir, directed by the great Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent script (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes) that is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right up until the end. It’s a precursor (of sorts) to Basic Instinct (or it could have been a direct influence, for all I know). Criterion’s 2K transfer is outstanding. Extras include a slightly condensed 1975 documentary about Ray.

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of 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.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

By any other name: Trumbo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2015)

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Chris Hayes shared this Harry Truman quote on his MSNBC show, All In the other day:

 When we have these fits of hysteria, we are like the person who has a fit of nerves in public; when he recovers, he is very much ashamed…and so are we as a nation when sanity returns.

 –from Years of Trial and Hope, Volume 2

Hayes was doing a piece on the current political backlash and fear mongering (mostly from the Right) against Syrian immigrants in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. That quote from President Truman’s memoirs, Hayes pointed out, referred to the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s; his point being that, (as the French always say) plus ca change

Speaking of “timely”, one could draw many historical parallels with the present from Trumbo, a fact-based drama by director Jay Roach which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending nearly a decade of writing scripts under various pseudonyms).

The film begins in 1947, the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its initial “investigation” into whether or not Hollywood filmmakers were sneaking Communist propaganda into films; and if so, who was responsible. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other members of the industry (now immortalized as “The Hollywood Ten”) were summoned. All ten refused to cooperate. Their reward for standing on their convictions was…contempt convictions. This precipitated their inductions as premier members of the infamous blacklist (which, if one were to ask the studio suits that did the hiring, never officially existed). Trumbo ended up doing eleven months in the pen. The bulk of the film recounts his long, hard-won road to redemption.

Despite the somewhat rote narrative choices, I’m heartily recommending this film, for a couple reasons. First, for the performances. Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era prototype for Hunter S. Thompson (especially once he dons his dark glasses). He is ably supported by a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren (as odious gossip columnist/Red-baiter Hedda Hopper) Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s wife), Louis C.K. (his finest dramatic performance to date), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). John Goodman (as a boisterous and colorful low-budget film producer who is suspiciously reminiscent of the shlockmeister he played in Matinee) and Christian Berkel (as larger-than-life Austrian director, Otto Preminger) make the most of their small roles.

Screenwriter John McNamara (who adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo) plays it by-the-numbers; with broadly delineated heroes and villains (Trumbo himself conceded years later that there was “courage and cowardice […] good and bad on both sides”). While not as emotionally resonant as Martin Ritt’s similar 1976 dramedy, The Front (it’s tough to beat those end credit reveals that key members of that film’s cast and crew actually were victims of the blacklist), Roach’s film happily shares a like purpose; it provides something we need right now, more than ever…a Rocky for liberals.