Tag Archives: 2011 Reviews

Blu-ray reissue: Kiss Me Deadly ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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Kiss Me Deadly – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Robert Aldrich directed this influential 1955 pulp noir, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Ralph Meeker is the epitome of cool as hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer, who picks up a half-crazed (and half-naked) escapee from “the laughing house” (Cloris Leachman) one fateful evening after she flags him down on the highway. This sets off a chain of events that leads Hammer from run-ins with low-rent thugs to embroilment with a complex conspiracy involving a government scientist and a box of radioactive “whatsit” coveted by a number of interested parties.

The sometimes confounding plot takes a back seat to the film’s groundbreaking look and feel. The inventive camera angles, the expressive black and white cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), the shocking violence, and the nihilism of the characters combine to make this quite unlike any other American film from the mid-50s.

The film is said to have had an influence on the French New Wave (you can  see that link when you pair it with Godard’s Breathless). British director Alex Cox paid homage in his 1984 cult film, Repo Man (both films include a  crazed scientist driving around with a box of glowing radioactive material in the trunk), and Tarantino featured a suspiciously similar box of mysterious “whatsit” in Pulp Fiction.

Criterion’s transfer is excellent (although on the down side, the high definition does bring out the inherent graininess of the film). Extras include commentary from two noir historians, excerpts from two docs (one about screenwriter Bezzerides and the other a profile of Spillane) and a special tribute from the aforementioned Alex Cox.

Blu-ray reissue: Excalibur ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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Excalibur – Warner Bros. Blu-ray

Eclectic director John Boorman tried his hand at adventure-fantasy in this umpteenth version of the King Arthur legend, with varying results (mostly good). Although purists might see it as bit of a Cliff Notes take (and granted, there are some jarring jumps in the narrative), I think this is one case where style trumps substance.

Photographed in a gauzy, dreamlike haze (by Alex Thomson, who also shot Legend and Labyrinth), the film is buoyed by a marvelous cast, including Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and the great Helen Mirren (as a deliciously evil Morgana). One thing’s for sure-there’s much more sex and violence than previous versions of the Arthurian legend, and more emphasis on the darker aspects of the tale (like the incest, for example). Definitely not recommended for a double bill with The Sword in the Stone on family movie night, if you know what I’m saying.

Warner skimps on extras, but the Blu-ray transfer is excellent.

Blu-ray reissue: Blow Out ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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Blow Out – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1981 thriller is one of Brian de Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape. The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one his most “de Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax). Criterion has done this visual stunner proud with their Blu-ray. The extras include in-depth interviews with de Palma and co-star Nancy Allen.

Oh, mama…can this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2009)

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Sometimes, you see a little kicker on the evening news that puts everything into perspective. Such was the discovery this past Monday that an “object” has recently bombarded the planet Jupiter. As of this writing, experts are not sure if it was a comet, an asteroid, or whatever-but it was a doozey. By initial accounts, the impact area is nearly the size of the Earth. I’m no astronomer, but that is one big-ass event. It just makes our silly little concerns about religion, politics, war and commerce all seem so…silly, dunnit?

At any rate, the entertainment value of Armageddon (hey-there’s an upside to everything) certainly has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether it is precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues or mankind’s curious propensity for continuing to seek new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature (make it a Theme Night!). As per usual, I am presenting the list alphabetically, in no particular preferential order. So enjoy, er…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, post-modernist re-imagining of Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it compelling. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the story joins a Yuppified Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he jets in to New York with his personal assistant, Magdalena (British alt-rocker P.J. Harvey) in tow (they check in to their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”).

This is anything but your typical business trip, as J.C. is in town to do Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. The kid has his doubts, however about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also on hand to do hostile takeovers of as many souls as he can during the world’s final few hours.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s deep in its own way.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Edward Judd) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Judd has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in).

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the propensity for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why they bothered to make this shit up.

In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…“funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm goes awry).

There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Alien “highway” crew

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way. The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop. You know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

Double bill: w/ On the Beach

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance in this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a cult following. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer, by the way.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomous conflict of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of many other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal).

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact

SIFF 2011: Shut Up Little Man! **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

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Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure takes its title from a popular catchphrase among “audio verite” fans (a pre-internet network of collectors who circulated cassette tapes of bloopers, outtakes and other found sounds).

“Shut up, little man!” was an oft-repeated admonishment from a drunken gay gentleman, who used to scream it at his equally soused and verbally abusive homophobic roommate. Highlights from this odd couple’s nightly spats were captured for posterity via surreptitious recordings by their next-door neighbors, two pals who moved to San Francisco from the Midwest in the late 80s.

How these recordings made the journey from obscure collector’s circles to inspiration for plays, underground comics, music remixes and three competing film development projects (whilst the original “performers” remained oblivious) makes for a twisty tale. Australian director Matthew Bate also ruminates on the inherently exploitative aspects of outsider art. While discomfiting, it’s oddly…compelling.

SIFF 2011: Magic Trip ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

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Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place is the latest from the prolific  Alex Gibney, and a good companion piece to his 2008 doc Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. If you’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, this is the next best thing to  “being there”.  Waaay out “there”.  We’re talking the original Magical Mystery Tour, the one that kicked off that disunited state of mind glibly referred to by those who were not “there” as The Sixties.

In 1964, author Ken Kesey, who had been involved with the infamous CIA-sponsored 1959 psychoactive drug research program at Stanford, assembled a group of friends (including hipster saint/speed freak Neal Cassady) for a cross-country bus trip/consciousness-raising experiment that would come to be known as the maiden voyage for the “Merry Pranksters”. Kesey was prescient enough to document the trip with hours of film and audio recordings, but never got around to organizing it all as a narrative.

Gibney proves himself up to the task; as well as connecting all the (micro) dots between the Beats, the Pranksters, Leary, the Dead and beyond (the beyond). It’s a fascinating new angle on a well-beaten path. BTW…I know what you Gen X-ers and Millennials are thinking: “Oh please god,  not yet another documentary about the Boomers and their halcyon  days!” But hey man, give this piece a chance.

SIFF 2011: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

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Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is about as benign as a midnight movie gets. Sort of a mash-up of (a less funny) Clerks with Coneheads, it’s a wildly uneven and self-consciously campy affair that’s just endearing enough to make it tough to dislike. Writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s setup is clever; scientists on a distant planet theorize that the holes in their ozone are exacerbated by the disruptive vibes of lonely singles with too many “big feelings” (i.e. unrequited love). Their solution? Send the culprits to Earth, each with a directive to hook up with a human, who will of course break their heart and put them off of this silly love thing.

The story follows the travails of three of these exiles, one of whom ends up with a socially awkward NYC store clerk (Lisa Haas). There are some genuine laughs, particularly whenever Olnek hits on some universal truths about relationships, but I wish there had been more of that and much less of a subplot involving two “men in black” who engage in scene after scene of painfully unfunny banter (quite amateurishly acted, as well) that drags the film down. The good news is that Olnek does display enough of an assured hand to hint that better things could be on the way in future.

SIFF 2011: Hit so Hard **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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“J. H. Mascis on a Popsicle stick,” I thought to myself around 20 minutes into Hit So Hard, an alt-rockumentary about the travails of Hole drummer Patty Schemel “this isn’t going to be another one of those glorified episodes of VH-1’s Behind the Music…is it?” But once I realized that VH-1 doesn’t hold the patent on rags-to-riches-to-rags tales about musicians who self-sabotage promising  careers via self-destructive behaviors, I relaxed and just went with the flow.

Writer-director P. David Ebersole has rendered a candid portrait not only of his subject (a feisty, outspoken yet endearingly self-effacing woman who is sort of a punk-rock version of Tatum O’Neal) but of the fertile Seattle grunge scene that exploded in the early 90s. Schemel was a close family friend of that scene’s power couple-so we also get an intimate glimpse at the home life of the two-headed beast that was Kurt and Courtney (and more than enough of the post-Kurt Courtney).  Ebersole’s film feels a bit unfocused  at times, but will definitely be of great interest for Hole and/or Nirvana fans.

SIFF 2011: Drei ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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With his new film, 3 (aka Drei) German director Tom Tykwer finally answers that age-old question: What would happen if a bio-ethicist (Sophie Rois) and an art engineer (Sebastian Schipper), who have been involved in a loving, 20-year long relationship should suddenly (unbeknownst to each other) find themselves falling head-over-heels in love with the same genetics research scientist (Devid Streisow)? It gets interesting. Whether or not it gets interesting enough to hold your attention …well, that depends.

Although he can’t resist tossing in a few of his patented art-house flourishes (thankfully, he only flirts with that annoying split-screen gimmick this time), this is a relatively low-key effort from a director who has built his rep on delivering stylized kinetics (Run Lola Run, The International). If you can visualize Woody Allen directing The Unbearable Lightness of Beingthen you’ll find Tykwer’s surprisingly conventional romantic romp about an unconventional love triangle amongst the Berlin intelligentsia  playful, erotic and smart. And if there is a message, it’s  imbedded within the film’s most quotable line: “Say goodbye to your deterministic understanding of biology.”

SIFF 2011: The First Grader ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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Even though I could glean from frame one that The First Grader (this year’s SIFF opening night selection) was one of those dramas expressly engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it. Produced by the BBC and beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film dramatizes the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who, fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, makes a beeline for his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books.

Bemusement from the school officials (who initially balk) turns to respect for the aging gentleman’s quiet determination to realize his life-long dream, especially from the school’s compassionate principal (Naomie Harris). As you may have already guessed, there is much more to the protagonist’s story; through flashbacks we learn that he was a freedom fighter against the ruling British during the nearly decade-long Mau-Mau uprising that took place in Kenya in the 1950s. The full sacrifice he made and personal tragedy he suffered comes slowly and deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement that packs a powerfully emotional gut punch.