Tag Archives: 2013 Reviews

MacArthur’s lark: Emperor **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2013)

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The heroes and villains are not easily delineated in Emperor, an uneven hybrid of History Channel docudrama and Lifetime weepie based on Shiro Okamoto’s book and directed by Peter Weber. Set in post-WW 2 Japan at the dawn of the American occupation, the story centers on the roundup of key Japanese military and political leaders to be tried for war crimes.

President Truman has appointed General Douglas MacArthur (a scenery-chewing Tommy Lee Jones) to oversee the operation; he in turn delegates “Japan expert” Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (tepid leading man Matthew Fox) to see that the task is executed pronto. Fellers is also directed to investigate whether the biggest fish, Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) gave direct input on war strategy. MacArthur has allotted him only a week or so to conduct his investigation (no pressure!).

Indeed, the question of the Emperor’s guilt is a complex one (and the most historically fascinating element of the film). Was he merely a figurehead, kept carefully squirreled away in his hermetic bubble throughout the war and occasionally trotted out for propaganda purposes? Or did he have a direct say in military decisions, perhaps even giving a blessing for the attack on Pearl Harbor?

And there is the cultural element to consider. MacArthur (at least as depicted in the film) was shrewd enough to realize that if he could build a working relationship with Hirohito, perhaps the Emperor could in turn persuade the populace to cooperate with their overseers, thereby expediting the rebuild of Japan’s sociopolitical infrastructure. Even if he was a paper tiger, the Emperor’s words traditionally held substantial sway over the Japanese people.

Unfortunately, screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass shoot themselves in the foot and sidestep this potentially provocative historical reassessment by injecting an unconvincing romantic subplot involving Fellers’ surreptitious search to discover the fate of a Japanese exchange student (Aya Shimada) who he dated in college (the young woman, whose father was a general in the Imperial Army, returned to Japan before the war). The flashback scenes recapping the relationship are curiously devoid of passion and dramatically flat, grinding the film to a halt with each intrusion.

While Fox has a touch of that stoic Henry Fonda/Gary Cooper vibe going for him, his performance feels wooden, especially when up against Jones, who makes the most of his brief screen time (even he is given short shrift, mostly relegated to caricature and movie trailer-friendly lines like “Let’s show them some good old-fashioned American swagger!”).

I get the feeling that at some point during the film’s development there was an interesting culture-clash drama in here somewhere. But when the denouement is a re-enactment of an historic photo that slowly dissolves from the actors into the actual photo? That is almost never a good sign…

Liars for clams: Greedy Lying Bastards ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2013)

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Greedy Lying Bastards: Do we have to draw you a picture?

I know it’s cliché to quote from the Joseph Goebbels playbook, but this one bears repeating: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s pretty much the theme that runs throughout Craig Rosebraugh’s documentary, Greedy Lying Bastards. As a PR consultant seems to reinforce in the film: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.”

The debate at hand? Global warming. The facts, in this case, would appear irrefutable; Rosebraugh devotes the first third of his film to a recap of what we’ve been watching on the nightly news for the past several years: a proliferation of super-storms like Hurricane Sandy, rampant wildfires, “brown-outs”, and one of the worst droughts in U.S. history. Climate scientists weigh in.

Granted, this ground has been covered extensively via the  surge of eco-docs that followed Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth (one of the top 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time). And one could argue that moviegoers have stayed away from subsequent genre offerings in droves, leaving many hapless (if earnest) filmmakers preaching to the choir (ever attended a matinee with 3 people in the audience, including you?). Rosebraugh separates himself from the pack by devoting most of the screen time going after those “folks without the facts”, and analyzing how and why they are “far more effective” at this game.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects the dots between high-profile deniers (who one interviewee labels “career skeptics […] in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. The shills range from media pundits (very few who have any background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Various “think tanks” and organizations are exposed to be glorified mouthpieces for the big money boys as well.

If you enjoy a generous dollop of heroes and villains atop your scathing expose, you should find this doc to be in your wheelhouse. Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes. It’s a bit depressing, but as you watch, you’ll thank the gods for the Good Guys, like politicians Henry Waxman and Jay Inslee, and science-backed voices of reason like Dr. Michael E. Mann. The idiosyncratic Rosebraugh narrates throughout  like an ironic hipster version of Edward R. Murrow.

At one point, the director gets into the act, Roger and Me style. After unsuccessful attempts to arrange an interview with ExxonMobil’s chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, he goes guerilla. Hiding his tats with suit and tie, he gains admission to Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder’s meeting, where he asks the chairman (from the audience) if he would (at the very least) acknowledge the human factor in global warming. Tillerson’s answer, while not exactly reassuring, is surprising. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which is the least any of us can do.

London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

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If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”. Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growling fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase.

The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad.

However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies. The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops ’n’ robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. One needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting), and is chock-a-block with crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside.

Most significantly, both characters see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

Northern exposure: Happy People: a Year in the Taiga ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2013)

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Siberia has acquired a bit of a bad rap over the years, especially in literature and film. Granted, up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the phrase “We’re going to send you to Siberia!” usually indicated that “you are in some deep shit, my droogie” (it’s now a tongue-in-cheek colloquial for “a fate worse than death”). Yet, even during the gulag era, you couldn’t fault ‘Siberia’ (the geographical entity) itself for any state-sponsored maliciousness that occurred within its boundaries. And despite the bad press, it is actually quite a beautiful part of the world (nature has a funny way of remaining blissfully oblivious to the little dramas of the silly biped creatures who teeter about the terra firma for a spell before eventually falling over to provide some lovely mulch for the trees). This is the Siberia profiled in a documentary called Happy People: a Year in the Taiga.

Co-directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog, the film observes four seasons in the lives of several northern Siberian fur trappers,  all hailing from the remote village of Bakhta. Vasyukov’s intimately shot footage mesmerizes, as Herzog narrates in his inimitable fashion, bringing wry and keenly insightful observations to the table. While Herzog came on board during post-production, anyone familiar with his work will glean what attracted him to Vasyukov’s project, particularly in the person of Gennady Soloviev-rugged individualist, stoic survivalist, and a Zen master with a fur hat.

On the cusp of winter’s first freeze, Soloviev and his two fellow fur trappers (each accompanied by their trusty workmate dogs) head out together on the Yenisei River in their hand-crafted dugout canoes, splitting up to head out to their respective “territories”, where they will spend the winter gathering sable and ermine pelts. Herzog is palpably enamored with the men’s river travails, prompting him to wax poetic about the struggle against the elements; not surprising since similarly challenging river journeys figure prominently in two of his most well-known narrative films, Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (Soloviev is much like a typical Herzog protagonist).

There are a few nods to modern amenities (snowmobiles and firearms) but the men essentially survive by their wits and stamina during these protracted solo expeditions, living off the land in accordance with time-honored local traditions, and it’s fascinating to watch. This dedication to self-reliance also extends to life in the village (which is accessible only by boat or helicopter). It’s a rough life, but the residents seem to be “happy”, taking it all in stride. Well, for the most part. While it’s easy to romanticize the idea of living off the grid…“with no rules, no taxes, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct,” (as Herzog reverently muses) the village is not entirely free of social ills (the problem of alcoholism among the indigenous native people of the region is briefly acknowledged).

As I was watching the film, a certain sense of familiarity began to gnaw at me. It was something about the stark wintry beauty of naturally flocked spruce forests, the crisp contrast of white birch against blue skies, and the odd moose galumphing into the frame. Or maybe it was the relentless vampirism of swarming mosquitos during the short but intense sub-arctic summer. Then it dawned on me. I had lived there! Was this a past life memory? Then I remembered that I don’t believe in that sort of thing…so I Googled a map of Siberia, which solved the mystery: the village of Bakhta lies roughly on the same longitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, where I lived for 23 years. I couldn’t see Russia from my house, but I now feel a spiritual kinship with these hardy Siberians. Okay, I’m not a survivalist (if I were to venture out on Gennady’s trap line; I’d end up like the protagonists in Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent). But I think you catch my drift…

Bring me the head of you-know-who: Zero Dark Thirty **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2013)

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Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

At any rate, by the time I reached the end of its exhausting 157 minutes, any vicarious feeling of “victory” (intended or otherwise) I may have experienced watching Maya’s (that is to say, “America’s”) long-sought quarry go down in a hail of bullets was Pyrrhic at best; the same curiously ambivalent reaction I had watching Hitler and Goebbels getting blown to bits by another all-‘Murcan hit team in Quentin Tarantino’s 2010 WW2 revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (and neither film’s denouement made me feel, you know…patriotic). Or, as I wrote regarding this peculiarly post 9-11 form of Weltschmerz in my review of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, Stuart Schulberg’s 2011 doc about the Nazi war trials:

Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much [since 1946]; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same […] “Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless an ex-football player is somehow involved).

But that’s just me. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that have emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release this weekend would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice that I say nearly. Here’s how she cheats. After opening with a powerfully affecting collage of now sadly familiar audio clips of horrified air traffic controllers, poignant answering machine adieus and heartbreaking exchanges between frustrated 911 operators and hapless World Trade Center office workers, Bigelow segues into those torture scenes you have undoubtedly heard about.

Tugging at our heartstrings to incite us to vengeful thoughts? That’s not playing fair. “Remember how terrible that day was?” she seems to be saying, “…so the ends justify the means, right? Anyone? Bueller?” The rub is that by most accounts, none of the intelligence instrumental to locating Bin Laden’s whereabouts was garnered via torture…unless the director knows something the rest of us don’t. That being said, the harrowing scenes (around 10 minutes of screen time) would not be out of place in a film about, say, Abu Ghraib (maybe Bigelow is making an oblique reference?).

However, if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While  lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting.

Chastain compellingly inhabits her obsessive character, and there are excellent supporting performances from Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clark, Kyle Chandler and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Mark Strong (who is becoming one of my favorite character actors). If this sounds like a mixed review-well, I suppose it is. But hey, I still support the troops!

What the hell happened to me? – 56 Up ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2013)

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Have you ever stumbled across one of your own childhood photos and mused, “How could this grinning idiot have not seen a future in computer science?” Or, “Pardon me, but…have we met?” (“If I’d only known then what I know now…”).

The tendency many of us have to brood about a life tragically misspent with each successive birthday is bad enough…but imagine doing it on national TV, whilst thousands of voyeuristic strangers look on, parsing your every thought and action. If that reminds you of The Truman Show, you’re not far off the mark.

In 1964, a UK television film series-cum-social experiment kicked off with Paul Almond’s 7 Up, a documentary profiling fourteen 7 year-old kids from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, sharing their dreams and aspirations. 7 years later the same subjects appeared in 7 Plus Seven, with  Michael Apted taking over directing. Seven year updates continued with 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up and 49 Up.

Which brings us to Apted’s latest chapter, 56 Up; like its predecessors, it has been released to theaters. First, it’s nice to see that everyone is still above ground (currently being 56 and ¾ myself, I find that somehow…reassuring). This is not to say that the participants haven’t been put through life’s wringer in one way or another. Health issues, multiple marriages and financial problems abound. Some are doing better than 7 years ago, some worse; most maintain the status quo. Some are happy, some not so much.

The most fascinating character continues to be Liverpool native Neil Hughes, who is like a real life version of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. A charming and funny little kid in 7 Up, he was a homeless, mentally troubled university dropout by 21 Up. Over the next two installments, he remained directionless and homeless, moving first to Scotland, then to the Shetlands. By 42 Up, however, he had discovered a knack for politics, in which he remains ensconced.

In this age of dime-a-dozen reality TV shows and smart phone attention spans, the idea of a filmed series where the audience waits seven years between “episodes” may seem trite; perhaps downright anachronistic. But if you think about it for 10 seconds, I suspect that sitting down to watch any number of episodes of, let’s say, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, over any number of years, would not likely provide you with much keen insight into the human condition (it’s more likely a roomful of monkeys with typewriters could eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare…and in less time).

At least here, there were/are noble intentions; and you certainly cannot say that Apted, having devoted 40 years of his life  to the project doesn’t have “the vision thing”. Not all participants share in the altruism; in 56 Up some  interviewees continue to badger the director to hang it up and be done with it. Granted, 10 to 15 minutes of screen time, every 7 years cannot give you the whole picture of someone’s life, and that’s one of the primary issues in question.

As far as the “social experiment” aspect of the project is concerned, that has been off the table for some time now, especially when you consider that the participants have become celebrities in the U.K. So it appears that over the years, the “experiment” has become less Margaret Mead and more Andy Warhol.

Indeed, one gentleman, who has declined to participate since his strident anti-Thatcher rants in 28 Up made him a pariah in the British press and led to his resignation as a teacher, makes no effort to sugarcoat his cynicism. “I’ve only agreed to come back” he tells Apted, “…because I want to promote my band.”

Still, for the most part, everyone is game. There’s a palpable sense of poignancy this time , since Apted has amassed a sizable archive of clips for each interviewee, from all periods of their lives (he makes good use of the flashbacks and flash-forwarding).

The lives depicted here may not be glamorous or exciting, but most people’s lives aren’t, are they? And as cliché as this sounds, it all seems to boil down to that most basic of human needs: to love or be loved. You know what? I’ll bet that’s what was making me smile in my childhood photo.

Now say something funny: When Comedy Went to School (**1/2) & A top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 24, 2013)

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Regular readers will likely roll their eyes if I kick off yet one more post with “Back in my stand up days…” So anyway, back in my stand up days, I developed a “hook” for the act based on being a Jew from Alaska. “Feast your eyes,” I would tell the stone-faced crowd by way of introduction, “You’re looking at an actual Jew from Alaska. We’re a rarity. We call ourselves ‘Jewskimos’.” Sporadic chuckles. Wait a beat. “God’s Frozen People.” HUGE laughs (usually). Okay, you’ve got ‘em. Don’t lose momentum. “In fact…and I have to say I don’t share this with every audience,” I would confide, “My Jewskimo name is ‘Kvetches With Wolves’. That was given to me by my rabbi…Rabbi Iceberg.” Guffaws, light applause. If I didn’t have them by then, I knew I was fucked.

I never stopped to consider why I made a conscious decision to play up my “Jewishness” to milk laughs/approval from roomfuls of drunken strangers. After all, my father is a farm boy from rural Ohio, and my mother is a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, so technically speaking, I’m not 100 per cent Kosher…I could swing either way. Why not play up my WASP “half”? Why did I eschew the straw hat for the yarmulke? Is it the Jewish DNA that makes me “ha-ha” funny?

It so happens that there is a new documentary called When Comedy Went to School, in which co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akaaya tackle the age-old question: Why are there so many Jewish comedians? Apparently, back in 1970, a survey found that while Jews only comprised 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of the professional comics working at the time. Who better to ask than some Jewish comedians? Robert Klein narrates, providing some historical context (my Jewish grandfather emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms, so I wasn’t shocked  by the filmmaker’s revelation that vaudeville sprang from the shtetls of Eastern Europe).

Unfortunately, after a perfunctory nod to Vaudeville, Frank and Akaaya kind of drop the ball as per any further parsing of the symbiotic evolution of the Jewish-American experience with the development of modern comedy, instead leaning on the old shtick of parading veteran Borscht Belt comics like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason in front of the cameras to swap war stories about the halcyon days of the Catskill resorts (which is where, the filmmakers posit, comedy “went to school”).

There is some fun vintage performance footage (Totie Fields! Buddy Hackett!), and an overall genial tone to the affair that makes it hard not to like on a casual level, but the film is ultimately a somewhat superficial affair (and c’mon guys…a slow motion montage of performers edited in sync to Judy Collins’ rendition of ”Send in the Clowns”…again?). It’s very similar in structure and tone to the 2009 PBS mini-series Make ‘em Laugh: The Funny Business of America; and at a short 76 minutes, it  feels destined for television broadcast.

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OK, so that didn’t work for me, what to watch this weekend? Keeping with the theme, I thought I’d offer my “Top 5” picks for the best films about the business of funny. Enjoy!

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-“Do you want to know what ‘fear’ looks like?” exclaims Joan Rivers, pointing to a blank page in her weekly planner, “that is what ‘fear’ looks like.” Later, she laments “This (show) business is all about rejection.” Any aspiring stand-ups out there need to heed those words of wisdom (and I will back her up on this). Fear and rejection-that’s the reality of stand-up comedy. One could also take away much inspiration from Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s engaging “one year in the life” portrait of the plucky, riotously profane 75 year-old, as she rushes from nightclub and casino gigs to TV tapings, taking meetings and sweating over the writing and production of her one-woman stage play. The film also reviews her roller coaster career, from Borscht Belt beginnings to anointment (then blackballing) by Johnny Carson, then back up to middling. What emerges is a portrait of a performer who is still working her ass off, putting people 1/3 her age to shame with her fierce drive to succeed.

The King of Comedy– Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is an urbane, intensely private man by day, and a wildly successful TV talk show host by night. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a boorish, pushy autograph hound by day and an aspiring stand-up comic by night (in his mother’s basement). Rupert dreams of getting his big “break” on Jerry’s show. When his demo tape fails to land him an audition, an increasingly delusional Rupert attempts to ingratiate himself by stalking his idol. This does not set well, leaving the desperately fame-hungry Rupert only one option: kidnap Jerry and demand a spot on his show as ransom. The outstanding direction from Martin Scorsese, sharp screenplay by Paul D. Zimmerman, and top-notch performances bolster a dark satire about the ups and downs of the show-biz ladder (as well as our obsession with celebrity culture).

Lenny– Directed by Bob Fosse, adapted by Julian Barry from his own play and shot in gorgeous B&W by DP Bruce Surtees, this 1974 biopic is an idiosyncratic yet ultimately illuminating look at the life and legacy of groundbreaking “dirty” comic Lenny Bruce, brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Don’t expect a hagiography; Fosse is not shy about taking side trips from the faux-documentary framework to revel in the seedier elements of Bruce’s personal life, especially his heroin addiction and dysfunctional marriage to a stripper (Valerie Perrine, in a heartbreaking performance that earned her  a Best Actress win at Cannes). Hoffman’s transformation from the fresh-faced comic genius killing packed houses every night to the ranting,  puffy-faced junkie parsing transcripts of his obscenity trials to a handful of puzzled drunks is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mickey One– Warren Beatty is a comic who is on the run from the mob. The reasons are never made clear, but one thing is for certain: the viewer will find him or herself becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death). Directed by Arthur Penn, who also teamed up with Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde.

The Tall Guy– Whether it slipped under the public’s radar or was poorly marketed is up for debate, but this underrated gem (directed by actor-comedian Mel Smith) is the stuff cult films are made of. Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by a nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a stage comic beloved by his audience but known as a backstage terror to fellow cast members and crew. The most hilariously choreographed lovemaking scene ever put on film is worth the price of admission, but a stage musical version of The Elephant Man (skewering Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me rolling. Richard Curtis’ script is a schizoid mesh of high-brow and low-brow comedy that shouldn’t work…but somehow it does.

In the pines: Therese *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 7, 2013)

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First comes love, and then comes marriage. Or does it always necessarily occur in that order? For example, according to Wikipedia, a “marriage of convenience” is defined to be

contracted for reasons other than the reasons of relationship, family or love…such a marriage is orchestrated for personal gain or some other sort of strategic purpose.

“I’m marrying you for your pines…I’m not ashamed of that…you love my pines, too. Only natural.” That’s our eponymous Therese (Audrey Tautou) pitching woo to her fiancé, Bernard (Gilles Lellouche).

Not the most romantic basis for a pending marriage, but apparently it was the neighborly thing to do for those living on adjoining estates in the bucolic pinewoods of southwest France in 1928. “So many ideas in your head,” Bernard teases, “…like everyone, a few wrong ideas.” To which she enigmatically retorts, “It’s up to you to destroy them.” Well, you know what they say…love is a many-splintered thing.

Thus Therese embarks (no pun intended) on a new life, replete with those free-spirited “ideas” in her head. If the prospect of a provincial marriage to a narcissistic dullard who cares more about preserving family cachet than attending to his wife’s happiness or respecting her opinions sounds depressing, you would be correct.

One of the “ideas” that married life cannot “destroy” concerns Therese’s feelings toward sister-in-law Anne (Anais Demoustier), with whom she has been friends since childhood (the prologue offers a montage of idyllic summers suggesting Therese may harbor unrequited feelings for Anne).

This could explain why Therese sabotages Anne’s passion for a hunky suitor and then begins her own downward slide into a permanent sulk over her unsatisfying marriage. Eventually, she can only see one way out. Certain plot elements recall Hitchcock’s Rebecca, yet the film conveys no sense of Hitchockian suspense.

Therese is the final work by director Claude Miller (The Accompanist, Alias Betty), who died in April of 2012 at age 70. Miller co-adapted with Natalie Carter from Francois Mauriac’s 1927 novel, Therese Desqueyroux (previously filmed by Georges Franju in 1962). The novel was inspired in part by the trial of one Madame Canaby, who was tried in Bordeaux back in 1906 for attempting to poison her husband (she was acquitted, but convicted on a lesser charge of forging prescriptions).

The romanticist in me desperately wishes I could pronounce the director’s swan song as a fine piece of work, but unfortunately this film is as dull and lifeless as Therese and Bernard’s doomed marriage. The locale is lovely, the cast gives it their best shot, but the film is undermined by one too many dangling narrative threads…leaving the viewer unable to see the forest for the trees.

Our vines have sour grapes: You Will Be My Son **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 21, 2013)

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You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. C’est le vie. That’s the gist of Gilles Legrand’s You Will Be My Son, an oft-told story of a dysfunctional family; in this case a vat of seething resentment fermenting in the confines of a Bordeaux region heirloom vineyard. I may not know a bottle of Batard Montrachet 1990 magnum from a boxed mountain Chablis in a taste test, but I do know my whines, and this vintage-style melodrama has a fine woodsy bouquet of neuroses; albeit with a rather predictable finish.

The relationship under examination is between father and son. Paul (Niels Arestrup) is a successful winemaker and owner of an estate valued at 30 million Euros. His son Martin (Larant Deustch) lives on the estate with wife Alice (Anne Marivin) and helps with office duties. Martin yearns to be given more responsibilities that will groom him for taking over the mantle , but the demanding and domineering Paul (a classic narcissistic personality) views Martin as the not-so heir apparent to the family business. Paul mocks his son when Martin reminds him about his college degree in wine making, telling him you  must “have the palate” for it; he can only learn by doing.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that Paul’s daily nitpicking is taking a psychic toll on Martin (“Do something about those nails,” Paul berates him at one point, grabbing his hand, “It’s unbecoming for a man.”). While Martin continues to sublimate his growing anger at his father (much to his wife’s chagrin), all those poisons that lurk in the mud are about to hatch out after Paul’s longtime family friend/estate manager Francois (Patrick Chesnais) reveals that has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

When Francois’ son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet) who has a stateside gig as “Coppola’s chief winemaker” comes home to spend time with his dying father, Paul’s mood palpably brightens. It turns out that Philippe, with his wine making talents, business savvy and personal charm, has all the requisite attributes of Paul’s idealized heir. Paul’s wishful thinking moves beyond the academic when he consults with his lawyer about the plausibility of adopting Philippe as his son. To Paul’s surprise and delight, it turns out to be doable (“It’s a wonder of our civil codes,” his lawyer says, glibly adding: “It’s led to many marvelous family feuds.”)

While it takes a while for the narrative to catch fire (the script, co-written by the director with Delphine de Vigan and Laure Gasparotto could have benefited from tightening), I was pulled in enough to develop a morbid curiosity as to which character was going to take the most shrapnel when this emotional powder keg inevitably made its earth-shattering ka-boom. I should warn you that none of the players in this soap opera are particularly likable, so it could be an uphill battle all the way for some viewers. Like some wines, you could store this one in the cellar to uncork when the mood dictates.

Places she remembers: Good ‘ol Freda ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 21, 2013)

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There hasn’t exactly been a dearth of documentaries over the years delving into the public and private lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo, nor could I say with a straight face that there has been a severe lack of painstakingly annotated critical analysis regarding their music, album by album, song by song, lyric by lyric…and as an unapologetic Beatle freak, God (as a thing or whatever it is) knows that I’ve seen ’em all. Filmmakers have taken every tack, from cheap, breathless tell-all sensationalism to sober, chin-stroking dissertation about the Mixolydian constructs of “Norwegian Wood”. However, jaded as I am, I’ve never seen a Beatles doc as touching, unpretentious and utterly charming as Ryan White’s interestingly entitled Good Ol’ Freda.

The unlikely star of this study is an unassuming, affable sixty-something Liverpudlian named Freda Kelly. At the tender age of 17, she was hired by manager Brian Epstein to do odd jobs around the office while he focused on the fledgling career of his young proteges. A year or so later, she became the chief overseer for the band’s fan club, embarking on what was to turn into an amazing 11 year career as (for wont of a better job description) the Beatles’ “personal secretary”, from Cavern Club days to the dissolution of the band.

What makes Freda unique among the Beatles’ inner circle (aside that she remains a virtual unknown to the public at large) is her stalwart loyalty to this day in protecting the privacy of her employers; she’s never written a “tell-all” book, nor cashed in on her association with the most famous musical act of all time in any shape or form.

Granted, after appearing in this film, she won’t be unknown, but she makes it clear this is her finally caving in to say her piece (since we’re all so damn nosy and insistent), then she’ll be done with it. And she does tell some tales; although none of them are “out of school”, as they say. That’s okay, because she is so effervescent and down-to-earth that watching the film is like having Freda over for tea to peruse scrapbooks and enjoy a chat about times that were at once innocent, hopeful and imbued with the fleeting exuberance of youth. You could do worse with 90 minutes of your time.