Tag Archives: 2013 Reviews

Wish you were here: Sightseers **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2013)


There is nothing inherently amusing about mass/serial/spree killers; especially in these troubled times when they have become a daily occurrence. Nonetheless, filmmakers have been playing the subject for laughs for many a moon, going at least as far back as Frank Capra’s 1944 film adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s early 40’s Broadway hit, Arsenic and Old Lace, Charlie Chaplin’s 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux or the 1949 Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Of course, those films are almost “kind and gentle” next to contemporary genre fare like Bob Goldthwait’s God Bless America or the insanely popular Showtime series Dexter.

Sightseers, a dark comedy from the UK directed by Ben Wheatley, falls somewhere in between. A cross between The Trip and Natural Born Killers, it’s about a slovenly gent named Chris (Steve Oram) who drops in on his agoraphobic girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe, who co-wrote with Oram and Amy Jump) to spirit her away from her over-protective Mum for a road trip to the north of England. Chris is eager to open Tina’s eyes to wonders like the Ribblehead Viaduct and the Keswick Pencil Museum, camping out in their caravan along the way.

Besides, this will give the fledgling couple a chance to get to know each other (as Chris assures the wary Tina.) The journey begins well enough, until Chris witnesses a man littering on a bus. Chris gets unusually bent out of shape when the man dismisses his admonishment with a one finger salute. Tina is concerned, but Chris’ anger passes. She’s relieved. That is, until Chris “accidentally” runs over the litterbug with the caravan when he happens to spot him later that day. Oh, dear! Just when you think you’re really getting to know somebody.

So do the laughs pile up in tandem with the escalating body count? I don’t know; maybe I’m already witnessing more than enough mayhem on the nightly news, but I couldn’t squeeze guffaws out of seeing someone run over by an RV, or having their skull pulverized into ground chuck by repeated blows with a blunt object. Call me madcap. Despite being infused with wry British wit and oddly endearing performances from Oram and Lowe, Wheatley’s film may have made me chuckle a bit, but it didn’t exactly slay me.

Nuclear energy is safe! – Pandora’s Promise **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2013)


“Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong!”

 –From the Firesign Theatre’s album Everything You Know is Wrong.

Wow. My world’s been turned upside down. My mind is blown. For most of my adult life, I’ve apparently been walking around in a spoon-fed daze: Everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy is wrong!

I’m shocked. Shocked no one previously took the time to grab me by the lapel to sit me down and set me straight about this whole “nuclear energy is inherently unsafe” meme that my environmentalist brothers and sisters have been shoving down my throat ever since I was knee-high to a recycled glass hopper. That is, until I saw Robert Stone’s new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. Now, I’m free! Free to ride…without getting hassled by the Man!

Stone, a self-described “passionate environmentalist for as long as [he] could remember” goes on to write in his Director’s Statement that he sensed “…a deep pessimism that has infused today’s environmental movement, and to recognize the depth of its failure to address climate change.” Ouch.

Then, “…through getting to know (Whole Earth Catalog founder) Stewart Brand“, he was “introduced to a new and more optimistic view of our environmental challenges that was pro-development and pro-technology” (I should note at this juncture that Paul Allen and Richard Branson are a couple of the, shall we call them, “pro-development and pro-technology tycoons” with possible vested interest listed among the producers).

As he further notes,  Stone has enlisted members of the “small but growing cadre of people” willing to challenge “the rigid orthodoxy of modern environmentalism” as talking heads for his decidedly pro-nuclear energy film.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t read the synopsis very carefully, and was anticipating yet one more film along the lines of last year’s cautionary eco-doc The Atomic States of America, preaching to the choir and telling me what I already knew (or thought I knew?) about the health effects on populations living in proximity of nuclear plant mishaps like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Initially, as it began to dawn on me that Stone’s film was taking an unabashed debunker’s stance toward what has become the accepted “green think” on such matters, I must say I found it quite compelling, if for no other reason than the fact that it was breaking the typical eco-doc mold.

Besides, his interviewees take pains to identify themselves as environmentally-conscious, politically progressive folks who at one time were stridently anti-nuke (yet have come to see the light). But haven’t  thousands of Russians died of health issues related to Chernobyl? Pshaw! According to the film, the “official” number is…56? They cite a World Health Organization report that appears to support that number. France is held up as a prime example of one country that has happily embraced nuclear energy. And so on.

Still, by the time it ended, I couldn’t help but feel that what I’d just been handed was a one-sided debate, and the more I thought about it, the more it played like a 90-minute infomercial for the nuclear energy lobby. I began to wonder about the purported “green cred” of the interviewees. And what exactly is this “Breakthrough Institute”, the nebulous benefactor thanked in the end credits (sounds like one of those secret labs that get blown up at the end of a Bond movie)?

Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for weighing both sides of an issue, but apparently, I’m not the only movie-going rube with such an inquiring mind regarding a possible hidden agenda; it took all of 10 seconds on Mr. Google to find a 9-page investigative probe about the film’s cast and backers, posted by the activist group Beyond Nuclear. That said, I’ll grant Stone his chutzpah, and he gives food for thought. Should you see it? Hmm. Approach it as you would a reactor room…Enter with Caution.

French twisted: The Prey ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2013)


With the possible exception of Michael Mann’s Heat, I can’t name too many “cat and mouse” police procedural dramas I’ve seen where I’ve found myself rooting for both the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. That would the case in director Eric Vallette’s terrific new thriller, The Prey, because he adds a “worse” guy to the mix (more on him in a moment).

Granted, our “good” bad guy is no saint; in fact when the film opens he is doing hard time for bank robbery. Franck (Albert Dupontel) is trying to keep a low profile; he just wants to ride out his sentence so he can be reunited with his wife Anna (Caterina Murino) and little girl Amelie (Jaia Caltagirone). However, there’s a complication. Just prior to his arrest, Franck was able to stash the loot. Keeping his cards close to his vest whenever grilled by the cops, he’s remained mum as to the location (much to their chagrin). And, (no) thanks to a corrupt guard, Franck has endured repeated intimidation from fellow inmates who have been trying to pry the intel from him so their accomplices on the outside can scoop up the loot. Franck holds firm, and somehow keeps landing on his feet.

Everything is going swimmingly for Franck until the day he steps in to thwart several sadistic inmates who are about to gang-rape his slightly-built, mild-mannered cellmate Jean-Louis (Stephane Debac) as the guard nonchalantly looks the other way. The bespectacled, bookish Jean-Louis is in jail for child abduction, although he swears that it’s a “wrong man” scenario. Anyway, you know what they say: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Long story short: Franck gets extra time for his trouble, Jean-Louis is cleared by the court and wins a release (not before thanking Franck and chirpily insisting that he look him up when he gets out). Soon afterwards, Franck has a discomfiting visit from a twitchy ex-cop (played by the wonderful Sergei Lopez) obsessed with nailing Jean-Louis, whom he insists is in fact a diabolical, cleverly elusive child-rapist and serial killer. Franck, now seeing Jean-Louis as a potential threat to his family, makes a jailbreak (with the ex-cop’s help), and they team up to hunt down Jean-Louis. They in turn, of course are being chased by cops, headed by a tough female squad leader (Alice Taglioni).

What ensues is a pulse-pounding mash-up of The Fugitive, The Lovely Bones, and Taken, rendered by Valette in a fluid, kinetic style recalling Luc Besson’s best action thrillers. Laurent Turner and Luc Bossi’s deftly-constructed script nicely manages several converging story lines, maintaining a vibe of Hitchcock-worthy suspense whilst delivering surprisingly well-fleshed out characters for such a fast-moving entertainment. Strong performances abound, particularly from Dupontel as the fiercely focused Franck, Taglioni as his dogged pursuer, and Debac as the deceptively benign serial killer (the creepiest such portrayal this side of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter). The Prey may not break any new ground, but delivers the goods.

Highway 61 revisited: Mud ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2013)


There’s a lot of mystery in Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ modern-day Tom and Huck adventure-cum-swamp noir…not the least of which is how a 14 year-old Arkansas river rat named Neckbone came to be in possession of a Fugazi t-shirt (these are the little throwaway details in movies that keep me up nights-I’m pretty sure I need medication). However, that isn’t the central mystery; this tale is chuck-full of characters with Dark Secrets murkier than the black waters of the Mississippi that burble and roil throughout it.

The aforementioned Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) plays second fiddle to our young protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Ellis and Neckbone, who grew up together in a clannish riverbank neighborhood, kill time exploring their environs in a motorboat. While scouting a tiny island in the middle of the Mississippi, they happen upon a boat that has been stranded high up in a tree (now there’s a mystery).

Assuming that the wreck is abandoned (and being 14 year-old boys) they declare dubsies and agree to keep it a secret between the two of them. However, further exploration reveals dismaying evidence that “someone” may already have laid claim to this one-of-a-kind tree house. When they return to their own boat, fresh footprints indicate that while they were up in the tree, “someone” else was also doing some recon. Enter “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey).

Although somewhat gaunt and feral in appearance, Mud turns out to be disarmingly laid-back and soft-spoken in countenance. He is also quite the raconteur, soon regaling the impressionable lads with his tale of woe. While it may appear that he’s been living by his wits on this veritable desert island for an indeterminate amount of time, it seems that he has but recently returned to the area with a Special Purpose: to reunite with his long-time ladylove, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

So why doesn’t he simply make the 20-minute boat ride into town and hook up with her? Well, there’s this slight hiccup. You see, since they were last together, Juniper left him for this other guy, who turned out to be an evil, physically abusive dirt bag. So Mud ended up sort of, well, killing him. And now, the guy’s congenitally felonious family (headed by veteran hillbilly heavy Joe Don Baker) is hot on his trail and gunning for vengeance. So Mud has to lay low. Despite the preponderance of red flags, Ellis and Neckbone offer to help Mud in his righteous quest.

What ensues is a hybrid of Stand by Me and Whistle Down the Wind, with a touch of Tennessee Williams (the presence of a startlingly grizzled Sam Shepard lends additional Southern Gothic cred). I also got the feeling that Nichols was striving to create a sort of mythic American folk tale, in the mold of Glen Pitre’s woefully underrated 1986 gem Belizaire the Cajun; particularly in the way he immerses you in a unique regional subculture, which in this case appears to have changed little since the days of Mark Twain.

While the director’s reach may exceed his grasp at times (due in part to his busy mishmash of character study, family melodrama, coming-of-age tale, love story, mythic folk tale and suspense thriller), the strong sense of place (Adam Stone’s cinematography artfully captures the sultry atmosphere of a torpid backwater), compelling music score (by David Wingo) and excellent performances add up to a perfect Sunday matinee movie.

Walden pondering: Upstream Color ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2013)


You know all those Weekly World News-type stories about people allegedly kidnapped by aliens, who perform horrible experiments on their hapless captives before returning them to their original upright position behind the wheel of their car, now mysteriously relocated in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Iowa? While they may have vague recollections regarding anal probes and such, these folks are generally a bit fuzzy on details. In Upstream Color, writer-director-actor Shane Carruth may be offering an explanation. At least that’s one explanation that I can offer for this fuzzy cipher.

To say this film is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Huh?!” may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is jumped in an alley, tasered and then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (all I know is that it appears to be in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state.

Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna (I believe the original working title of this film was When Ethnobotanists Attack!) As he methodically cleans out her financial assets over a period of several days (with her “willing” cooperation) while encamped at her house, he next directs her to commit passages of Thoreau’s writings to memory (it was either that or waterboarding).

What happens next is…well, what happens next is, erm…OK we’ll just say it’s the creepy, fuzzily recollected part involving anal probes and such. All I know is that it takes place at a pig farm and fuzzily reminded me of that really creepy part of O Lucky Man! where Malcolm McDowell inadvertently stumbles into a top secret government medical research lab, where he’s tortured and then the next thing he knows he’s coming to on a gurney next to some poor wretched creature that appears to be half man and half sheep.

Anyhoo, the next thing the woman knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked alongside some cornfield off the interstate, and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. Oh, and along the way she meets and falls in love with this sullen dude (played by Carruth) who may have had the same exact experience! Wild and woolly metaphysical/transcendentalist hi-jinks ensue.

While I will give Carruth some points for originality (the closest I can come to a tagline for this one is A Man and a Woman meets Eraserhead) and find it admirable that he is making such an earnest effort to be compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, unfortunately he’s falling short, just this side of a glorified Twilight Zone episode.

This seems to be the latest entry in a burgeoning sub-genre that I have dubbed “emo sci-fi” (alongside the likes of Another Earth and Safety Not Guaranteed). That being said, if you are predisposed toward such challenging fare, I wouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out. And don’t feel bad if you don’t “get it” the first time you see it. I didn’t get it the second time I saw it, either.

Over under sideways down: Mental **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2013)


I’m beginning to worry about Toni Collette. While I realize that she is an actor (and a damn fine one) who is playing a seriously unhinged character in P.J. Hogan’s Mental, it’s just that she’s played these seriously unhinged characters so frequently, and with such unflagging gusto, I am starting to wonder if this woman really is off her fucking rocker. And if she is, know that I’m not judging; after all, that’s what made the late great Jonathan Winters such a comedic genius (he actually did have a few screws loose…may he R.I.P.).

In this outing, Collette (who made her bones with movie audiences as Hogan’s leading lady in his wildly popular 1994 Australian import, Muriel’s Wedding) plays a Nanny from Hell named Shaz (think Mary Poppins meets Courtney Love). She hitchhikes into a New South Wales burg, accompanied by her trusty dog, Ripper. She’s picked up by Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), an exasperated father of five daughters. He is at wit’s end, because his wife Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) who has a history of mental issues, believes that she is Maria von Trapp (in the opening, she serenades the neighbors and horrifies her kids by belting out a lively rendition of “The Sound of Music” while hanging laundry). Consequently, Barry, an ambitious politician, has sent his wife “on holiday” (the laughing house) on the eve of a campaign. What to do about his daughters?

For unfathomable reasons beyond the ken of any halfway responsible parent, Barry (who apparently spends so little quality time with his family that he can’t keep all his daughters’ names straight) offers the off-the-wall Shaz a gig as the family nanny. With his wife tucked away under psychiatric observation and his children under possibly psychotic supervision by a total stranger, Barry can now get back on track with his true passions: philandering and politicking. Needless to say, this highly dysfunctional home environment has imbued the Moochmore sisters with assorted neuroses of their own; but as we’ve learned from similar (and superior) films like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping and Eugene Corr’s Desert Bloom, it’s nothing the Kooky Free Spirited Auntie can’t cure.

A wild pastiche of general hysteria, screeching actors, busy sets and loud colors, Mental is a cacophonous, anxiety-inducing assault on the senses. Hogan told an interviewer that the story is loosely autobiographical, that there really was a “Shaz” who played a similar role in his childhood. That’s nice to know, but why turn such a potentially interesting personal memoir into what amounts to a live action Saturday morning cartoon? Now that I think about it, it is not unlike a Pedro Almodovar film; except Almodovar seems to know when to put a sock in it and allow his narrative to breathe a bit. While there’s something to be said for quirk, ebullience and verve (of which this film certainly has no shortage), Hogan refuses to let viewers up for air, leaving us to drown in his enthusiasm.

No future: Top 5 Thatcher era films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2013)


Digby did a great post earlier this week with an interesting cultural angle regarding the passing of former British PM Margaret Thatcher. She recalls how the Thatcher era (1979-1990) “was a fertile period in British music”, that blossomed in tandem with the “very active political opposition to Thatcherism”. The socio-political ennui that fueled those punk anthems Dibgy cites also informed the work of some young British filmmakers. So as a sort of companion piece to Digby’s post, I’ve selected five films that share the ethos:

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High Hopes – “Guess what its name is?” asks Shirley (Ruth Sheen), whilst pointing at a potted cactus plant. When their house guest shrugs, her husband Cyril (Philip Davis) chimes in, “Thatcher! Because it’s a pain in the ass; prongs you every time you walk past it.” Cyril (an old-school Marxist who works as a motorbike messenger) and the earth-motherly Shirley are at the center of Mike Leigh’s wonderful 1988 character study.

In his usual leisurely yet compelling fashion, Leigh pulls you right into the world of this sweet, unpretentious working-class couple and the people in their orbit. There’s Cyril’s elderly mum (Edna Dore), with whom he dutifully stays in touch (despite the fact that she voted Tory in the last election, to his chagrin). Cyril’s shrill, self-centered sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) is a piece of work; while she also stays in touch with Mum, she sees it as a bothersome chore. Her exasperated husband (Martin Burke) is starting to view his marriage as a bothersome chore. And then there is an obnoxious yuppie couple (Lesley Manville and David Bamber) that you will love to hate.

Many of Leigh’s recurring themes are present; particularly class warfare and family dynamics (the thread about Cyril’s aging mother reminds me of Ozu’s Tokyo Story). And like most of Leigh’s films, it’s insightful, funny, poignant and ultimately life-affirming.

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The Ploughman’s Lunch – In a 2009 article in The Guardian, a number of UK writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and arts critics weighed in regarding Thatcherism’s effect on each of their respective fields. This was theater and film director Richard Eyre’s take:

Thatcher’s relentless emphasis on money and management and marketing illuminated the value of things that couldn’t be quantified, and her moronic mantra “there’s no such thing as society” gave the humanitarian and moral a conspicuous importance. So, although I didn’t think it at the time, it’s possible that Thatcher gave the arts a shot in the arm.

And indeed, Eyre’s 1983 film is probably the most politically subversive of my five selections. Bolstered by Ian McEwan’s incisive screenplay, the story is set on the eve of the Falklands War. Jonathan Pryce tackles the unenviable task of making us care about an inherently smarmy protagonist with considerable aplomb.

Pryce plays a cynical Oxford-educated Radio London news writer who falls madly in love with a TV journalist (Charlie Dore). She reciprocates in a platonic fashion. Frustrated, Pryce begs a pal (Tim Curry) who also happens to be Dore’s long-time co-worker for ideas. Curry suggests that Pryce, who has been commissioned to write a book on the Suez Crisis, could score points by ingratiating himself with Dore’s mother (Rosemary Harris), an historian who once wrote a commemorative article on that very subject. Pryce’s love life takes a few unexpected turns.

While it may sound more like a soap opera than a political statement, McEwan’s script cleverly draws parallels between the self-serving sexual machinations of the characters and what he may have felt Thatcher was (figuratively) “doing” to Britain at the time.

It’s interesting to note that the denouement, which features the three journalists covering the 1982 Conservative Party Conference, was surreptitiously filmed at the actual event (you’ll see snippets of Thatcher’s address) as the actors nonchalantly mingled with the crowd (begging comparison to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool).


Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid –What I adore most about this 1987 dramedy from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts dread: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly (they don’t make ‘em like this anymore).

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.


This is England – This film from director Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) was released in 2007, but is set during the Thatcher era, circa 1983. A hard-hitting, naturalistic “social drama” reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s, it centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance).

Shaun is a real handful to his loving but exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a struggling working-class Falklands War widow. Happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang, after the empathetic and good-natured gang leader (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him unconditional entrée. The idyll is shattered when the gang’s original leader ‘Combo’ (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. His jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals splits the gang into factions. Shaun decides to side with the thuggish and manipulative Combo, and it’s downhill from there.

As a cautionary tale, the film demonstrates how easily the disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate. As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex sociopolitical upheaval in Great Britain. As a drama, it has believable and astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned Turgoose and Graham, who positively owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

Schenectady, NY: The Place Beyond the Pines ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2013)


It’s official. Ryan Gosling is the McQueen of his generation. He has already aced the Taciturn Pro Driver (in the 2011 film Drive) and now with this weekend’s opening of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling can add the Taciturn Pro Biker to his Steve cred.

Judging from the chorus of dreamy sighs that spontaneously erupted all about the auditorium when Gosling first appeared onscreen, perhaps “taciturn, ripped and tattooed” would be a more apt description of Luke Glanton, a carny who makes his living charging around the ‘cage of death’ on his motorcycle. When we meet him, the carnival is nearing the end of a run in Schenectady. Killing time between performances, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes) a woman he had a fling with the previous time the carnival blew through town.

Romina is reticent to re-connect with the flighty Luke, for two major reasons: 1) The new man in her life (Mahershala Ali), and 2) A 1-year old bundle of joy named Jason that resulted from their fling. She doesn’t tell Luke about item #2, but he soon finds out anyway.

Now, Luke is determined to “do the right thing” and provide for his son. He promptly quits the carnival gig, accepts a job offer from a shady auto repair shop owner (Ben Mendelsohn) and sets about ingratiating himself back into Romina’s life (choosing to ignore that whole live-in boyfriend thing).

However, minimum wage isn’t fitting in with Luke’s timetable. In lieu of a raise, his boss helpfully suggests that he try robbing a few banks for supplemental income (a sideline that the auto shop owner himself has dabbled in on occasion). With his special skill sets, Luke discovers that he has a knack; soon earning himself a nickname in the local media as “The Moto-Bandit”.

Luke’s reckless approach to his newfound criminal career puts him on a karmic path with that of another young father with an infant son, a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it is at this point that the film takes some unexpected turns. Without giving much away, we’ll just say Luke’s story is prologue for what evolves into a more sprawling, multi-generational tale in the Rich Man, Poor Man vein.

It can also be viewed as a three-part character study, with Officer Cross’s story taking up the middle third, culminating with a flash-forward 15 years down the road involving a tenuous relationship that develops between the now high-school-aged sons of the two men (Dane DeHaan as the older Jason and Emory Cohen as AJ Cross). There’s also a noirish subplot with echoes of James Mangold’s Cop Land; in fact one of its stars, Ray Liotta, is essentially reprising  the same character he played there in Cianfrance’s film.

While it’s tempting to label Cianfrance’s screenplay (co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) as too sprawling at times (tossing everything into the mix…from classic film noir cycle tropes to Sirkian subtexts) he earns bonus points for coaxing uniformly excellent performances from the cast (particularly from Gosling, Cooper and the Brando-esque young Cohen), and for keeping true to its central themes: family legacies, the sins of the fathers, and the never-changing machinations of small town American politics.

Field of nightmares: The Silence ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2013)


Generally speaking, a field of wheat is a field of wheat; nothing more, nothing less. However, in the realm of crime thrillers, such benign rural locales can harbor ominous underpinnings (Memories of Murder, The Onion Field and In Cold Blood come to mind).

And so it is in The Silence, a low-key, quietly unsettling genre entry from Germany. In the hands of Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar (who adapted from Jan Costin Wagner’s novel), a wheat field emerges as the principal character; an unlikely venue for acts running the gamut from the sacred to profane, as unfathomably mysterious and complex as the humans who commit them within its enveloping, wind-swept folds.

A flashback to the mid-1980s, involving the disappearance of a 13-year old girl, whose abandoned bicycle is found amid the aforementioned waves of grain, sets the stage for the bulk of the story, which begins 23 years later with an eerily similar incident at the same location involving a girl of the same age.

A team of oddly dysfunctional homicide detectives (several of whom worked the former unsolved case) sets about to investigate. However, Odar quickly discards standard police procedural tropes by revealing the perpetrator to the audience long before the police figure out who it is.

Interestingly, this narrative choice echoes another German crime thriller (arguably the seminal German crime thriller), Fritz Lang’s M. And, just like the child-murderer in Lang’s film, this is a monster hidden in plain sight who walks “among us”… personifying the banality of evil.

Putting the “mystery” on the back burner allows Odar to focus on the aftermath of tragedy. The loss of any loved one is profound; but the loss of a child, especially via an act of violence, is particularly devastating to surviving family members (so poignantly evident to us all in the wake of Sandy Hook).

In that respect, I was reminded of Atom Egoyan’s 1997 drama, The Sweet Hereafter. Like Egoyan, Odar deep-sixes Cause and makes a beeline for Effect, peeling away the veneer of his characters like the layers of an onion, enabling his talented ensemble to deliver emotionally resonant performances.

Consequently, this haunting film is not so much about interrogations and evidence bags as it is about grief, loss, guilt, redemption…and an unfathomably mysterious field of wheat.

The institution of last resort: The Waiting Room ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2013)


We’ve established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived…and people are sicker than ever. We ‘cure’ nothing! We ‘heal’ nothing!”

– George C. Scott as ‘Dr. Bock’, from The Hospital (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky)

There are two questions that get asked again and again throughout Peter Nicks’ film, The Waiting Room: “Do you have a regular doctor?” and “Do you carry health insurance?” And the answer that you hear over and over to both questions is a simple “no.”

After watching this extraordinary documentary (which somehow manages to be at once disheartening and life-affirming) I had to ask myself a question: “Does this country have a completely fucked-up health care system?” To which I answer with a simple “yes.” Not that Nicks has set out to make a self-consciously polemical statement on the health care crisis. Quite simply, he allows the  filmed record to speak for itself.

The premise is straightforward: document a “typical” 24 hour period in the life of a bustling public ER (in this case, at Oakland’s Highland Hospital) and compress it into a 90-minute film. And as you would expect, all forms of human misery are on display, in a microcosm of Everything That Can Go Wrong with these ridiculously fragile shells we inhabit for “…eighty years, with luck-or even less” (if I may quote my favorite Pink Floyd song).

A sweet little girl with a severe case of strep struggles to communicate as her loving parents take turns at her bedside. An uninsured 20-something couple (a man who has just learned he has a tumor, and his concerned wife) desperately confab with hapless and over-taxed attending physicians about how he’s supposed to arrange the “emergency” surgery recommended by a private hospital that has palmed him off on Highland’s ER.

Every time a trauma case arrives, there’s a ripple effect on the pecking order for the huddled (and understandably frustrated) masses in the waiting room proper; for obvious reasons nearly all available ER staff have to pitch in and focus on stabilizing the patient. When these efforts prove to be for naught, it’s heartbreaking to watch (in the film’s most emotionally wrenching scene, a 15-year old gunshot victim is pronounced DOA after attempts to resuscitate fail).

Not all scenarios are life and death. Some  patients are “regulars” who use the ER for primary care. One of the “regulars” is a homeless man (initially brought in for breathing problems) who has ongoing issues with drug and alcohol abuse. He has become a handful for the shelter he has been staying at; his attending physician is told over the phone that they don’t want to take him back anymore.

Now the doctor has to decide whether to let the pleading patient stay the night (and take up space that may be needed for more medically needy patients) or in essence toss him out into the streets. “Sometimes,” the frazzled doctor confides with a resigned sigh, “I have to admit people…for societal reasons.” Then, he delivers the film’s money quote: “This (the ER) is the institution of last resort.”

The filmmaker can’t be faulted for not asking the million dollar question that arises from that statement, because any viewer with a heart and a functional brain will begin to ponder why emergency rooms have become “the institution of last resort” for America’s uninsured.

Why are already overextended medical personnel who staff these facilities getting saddled with responsibilities more appropriate to PCPs, social workers and mental health professionals? And why is this even up for debate? How and when did the fundamental right to receive decent health care transmogrify into a political football?

Of course, we can wring our hands and debate health care issues until the cows come home, but in the meantime there are sick people who need help yesterday and who certainly don’t have time to hang around waiting for an act of Congress in order to get it. For their sake (and for yours and mine when the time comes, and that time will come) all I can say is thank the gods for the tireless and dedicated men and women who staff these facilities. That’s the takeaway I got from this film (and it accounts for that “life-affirming” part I mentioned earlier in the review).

Nicks, whose utilization of the observational mode recalls the work of documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman, has fashioned a narrative that is wholly intimate, yet completely unobtrusive. I never once got the impression that anyone was playing to the camera; consequently there is a great deal of humanity shining through, from doctors and patients.

And the next time a family member or co-worker starts ranting about the “tyranny” of universal health coverage, don’t argue. Calmly take their pulse, ask if they’ve been eating right, exercising and getting regular check-ups. Then, invite ‘em out for dinner and a flick-preferably this one.