Tag Archives: 2014 Reviews

Out there, in the dark: Life Itself ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 5, 2014)

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When the long-running TV program At the Movies quietly packed its bags and closed the balcony for good back in 2010, I wrote a piece about the profound impact that the show had on me in its various incarnations over the years; first as a film buff and later on as a critic:

Back in the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for an obsessive movie buff. At the time, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. And keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road as well […] Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed like it was requisite to actually live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of the films they reviewed didn’t make it out to the sticks) […]

Then, in 1978, our local PBS affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics […] In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies […] This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic […]

 One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

 After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert kept the show going whilst essentially auditioning an interestingly diverse roster of guest critics for several months, with fellow Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Richard Roeper eventually winning the permanent seat across the aisle. Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until 2006, when treatment for his thyroid cancer began. Of course, Roger Ebert’s life journey didn’t end there, just as it had already taken many twists and turns before his fame as a TV personality. In fact, it is these bookends that provide the most compelling elements in Life Itself, a moving, compassionate and surprisingly frank portrait from acclaimed documentary film maker Steve James (Hoop Dreams).

The film covers the full breadth of Ebert’s professional life as a journalist; beginning with his fledgling days as a reporter and reviewer for The Daily Illini while attending the University of Illinois in the early 60s, to his embrace of new media during that personally challenging (and very public) final chapter of his life, wherein he was able to reinvent himself as a sociopolitical commentator (which he pursued with the same passion, candor and intelligence that defined his oeuvre as America’s most respected film critic).

Despite the fact that the film was made with the full blessing and cooperation of its subject (and his widow), this is not a hagiography. To be sure, Ebert was a gifted, amazingly prolific Pulitzer Prize winning writer, the premier film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013, an instantly relatable, beloved TV personality with a killer hook (“Thumbs up!” or “Thumbs down!”) and by most accounts an engaging raconteur and generally warm and empathetic human being…but he was, after all, a human being. He could also be arrogant, obstinate, and petty (James includes some eye-opening outtakes from At the Movies that are quite damning). He had a long-time battle with the bottle (which he freely admitted, in interviews and in his memoir).

Yet he also showed us, at the end of it all, how silly it is to sweat the small stuff, and how important it is to follow your bliss, in spite of circumstance. Ebert’s insistence that the director not shy his cameras away from the hellishness of his final months may seem morbid (and granted, the unblinking nature of that footage is difficult to watch and may even be a deal breaker for some viewers), but in hindsight I think it was his way of reminding us of the old proverb: “I cried because I had no shoes…until I met a man who had no feet.” Yes, he suffered terribly, and became physically unrecognizable as the same erudite, Falstaffian Everyman who sat across the aisle from Gene and bantered about the latest Scorsese film on my little 13 inch TV with rabbit ears and fuzzy reception all those years ago; but he never lost the muse, or his true voice, which came through in his prose.

I have to say it. I’m giving this film a thumbs up. Until next week…the balcony’s closed.

Die bummelant: A Coffee in Berlin ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  28, 2014)

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Have you heard the good word? There’s this trendy new food pyramid that apparently keeps you energetic and svelte: Vodka, cigarettes and chewing gum. This appears to be all that sustains Niko (Tom Schilling), the Millennial slacker hero of writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut film, A Coffee in Berlin (known in Germany as Oh Boy). Oh, you are allowed to drink coffee…if you can get your hands on a cup. This is proving difficult for Niko, as we follow him around Berlin on (what we assume to be) a typical day in his life.

“I’m late…I’ve got a million things to do,” Niko tells his skeptical (and soon-to-be ex) girlfriend after she catches him giving her the early-morning slip (her Jean Seberg haircut is no accident; from this opening scene onward, Gerster’s camera movements, black and white photography and jazzy score leaves no doubt that his film is a paean to the French New Wave). Niko doesn’t seem to have much of anything going on, except maybe the rent. Even that is doubtful, after an ATM machine confiscates his debit card, much to his puzzlement.

In a Benjamin Braddock moment set at a posh country club, Niko gets an explanation, along with an admonishment from his father, who has figured out his deadbeat son has in fact not been spending his 1000 Euros a month stipend on law school for the past two years. Niko’s day has barely begun; many more such encounters await him, each more discombobulating than the last.

While you could say that the film is about “nothing”, it manages to be about everything. Perhaps it is the sheer breadth of the vignettes that make up Niko’s day; from the bathos to the pathos. From moments of silly slapstick, like Niko’s attempt to appear casual whilst dipping back into a homeless man’s hat to retrieve the change he had donated a few moments before his fateful encounter with the ATM machine, to an extraordinary monologue from an elderly barfly recounting a suppressed childhood memory of Kristallnacht, it collectively adds up to a summation of the human experience.

Visually, the film evokes Wim Wenders’ moody Wings of Desire; which has everything to do with the location photography. Berlin, like New York or Paris, is a metropolis that is most likely to reveal its true colors when viewed through a stark black and white lens. It’s tough to explain why such an episodic affair, wherein the dramatic tension derives from whether or not the protagonist will find an uninterrupted moment to enjoy a cup of coffee before credits roll, is one of the freshest films I’ve seen this year, but I believe I just did.

Involuntary simplicity: The Discoverers **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  21, 2014)

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Writer-director Justin Schwarz is the love child of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne. Actually, this is pure speculation, based upon viewing his dramedy, The Discoverers. It’s the oft-told, indie-flavored tale of a quirky, screwed-up family who embark upon an arduous trek, only to discover that all roads eventually lead back to Dysfunction Junction. However, as the rules of this film genre dictate, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Griffin Dunne stars as Lewis, a man in crisis. In the midst of a divorce and nearly broke, he barely scrapes by as a part-time history teacher at a Chicago community college. The only light on the horizon is that he may have finally found a publisher for his 6,000 page magnum opus about an obscure historical figure named York, a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their trek to the Pacific (his obsession with this decades-long research and writing project has essentially destroyed his marriage). When he is invited to present a paper in Oregon, he decides to make it a “family road trip”, dropping by his estranged wife’s house to scoop up son Jack (Devon Graye) and daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin).

Soon after they hit the road, they encounter their first detour. Lewis gets a frantic phone call from his smarmy yuppie brother (John C. McGinley), who asks him to check on their parents in Idaho. Lewis is reticent at first, as he has been estranged from his father (Stuart Margolin) for a number of years; but dutifully complies. What he discovers is not good; his mother lying dead on the bathroom floor (from natural causes), and his grief-stricken father, who remains silent and glowering while Lewis tends to the funeral arrangements.

His father only breaks his silence once, to insist that Lewis’ brother read the eulogy at the service (even though Lewis wrote it). After the burial, Lewis’ busy brother simply must dash, dumping their traumatized father into his charge. The next morning, Lewis’ dad pulls a disappearing act, but is located with a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors off on an annual “Discovery Trek” that recreates the pair’s epic journey. In an attempt to snap his father back to reality, Lewis talks his reluctant teenagers into tagging along, (not an easy sell, as all  are required to eschew modern amenities).

If you’re thinking this all sounds like Little Miss Sunshine meets Moonrise Kingdom by way of Nebraska, you would be correct. And as in those aforementioned films, the literal journey undertaken by the protagonists becomes a figurative journey of self-discovery; a mapping out and circumnavigation of roadblocks in their lives that are inevitably attributable to family dysfunction. These are the types of characters that make you wish you could reach through the screen, grab them by their lapels, and let them have it with that classic exhortation from Tootsie…”I BEGGED you to get therapy!”

The film would not have worked as well without Dunne; his penchant for projecting wryness in the face of existential despair (which made him the “go-to” guy in the 80s to play the Hapless Urban Everyman) remains intact. This is also a comeback for the 74 year-old Margolin, most recognizable for his TV role as the sidekick on The Rockford Files. He gives a touching, resonant performance.  And Schwarz earns extra points for injecting overly-familiar material with enough freshness and heart to make it quaffable.

Teenage rampage: Palo Alto (*1/2) & We Are the Best! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  14, 2014)

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School daze: Palo Alto

It’s tempting to call Gia Coppola’s directing debut, Palo Alto, a Hollywood home movie. Her mom (Jacqui Getty) is in the cast, as well as her cousin (Bailey Coppola) and her great aunt (Talia Shire). Another cousin (Robert Schwartzman, brother of Jason and son of Talia) is co-credited for the music. And her granddad (do I need to tell you who he is?) has a voice over cameo (unbilled). But I won’t do that; I will maintain professional integrity, and judge her film strictly on its own merits (are you buying this?).

Okay, one more thing I should give you a heads up on. Coppola’s film revolves around the travails of bored, mopey, privileged teenagers, which puts her at risk being accused of riding aunt Sofia’s coattails. Again, I won’t go there.

While the film is an ensemble piece about a group of northern California high school students, there is a protagonist. Her name is April (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric). Saddled with the mantle of “class virgin”, April is a sensitive and withdrawn senior who plays on the soccer team.

As her hormones begin to burble and roil, exacerbated by peer pressure from her sexually active girlfriend Emily (Zoe Levin), April finds herself conflicted by a dual attraction to her coach (James Franco) and more age-appropriate classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val…who plays April’s dad). Emily has already taken Teddy for a test drive, as well as his best bud Fred (Nat Wolff),  a surly James Dean type (we know this due to his tell-tale red jacket).

Coppola adapted her screenplay from cast member Franco’s book, Palo Alto: Stories. I haven’t read it, but a critic from Publisher’s Weekly certainly has. Here’s their conclusion:

The overall failure of this collection has nothing to do with its side project status and everything to do with its inability to grasp the same lesson lost on its gallery of high school reprobates: there is more to life than this.

Working from the assumption this is an accurate assessment of the source material, I can say that Coppola has made a film that is pretty faithful to the book (if you catch my drift). Roberts has a compelling presence, and Kilmer’s River Phoenix vibe will serve him well in future endeavors, but the narrative has been done to death, and with much more style and originality (try renting Foxes, Kids, Ghost World, Election, or River’s Edge instead).

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I was a teenage anarchist: We Are the Best!

It may seem counter-intuitive to ascertain that We Are the Best! (or any movie about punk rockers) is “endearing” but you’ve just got to love a rhyming couplet that matches up “morgue” with “Bjorn Borg”. That’s a line from “Hate the Sport”, written by 13 year-old friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin).

The city is Stockholm, the time is the early 1980s, and Bobo and Klara really hate P.E. class, which has inspired the pair to sign up for time at their school’s rehearsal space on a whim, so they can compose their punk anthem. While the space comes equipped with a drum kit and bass guitar, there is one drawback…neither of the girls knows how to play an instrument. But they do have the ethos (besides, Klara already sports a Mohawk) so they’re already halfway there.

Ostracized by their classmates for their tomboyish looks and demeanor, Bobo and Klara have formed their own social club of two. While Bobo is brooding and introspective, Klara is the more brash and outspoken of the pair. Klara also attaches great importance to maintaining one’s punk cred (in one particularly amusing scene she laments about her older brother being a “sellout” because he’s started listening to Joy Division).

Still, attitude and cred alone will only get you so far if you really want to actually start making music, so how should they go about learning a chord or two? Salvation arrives in the unlikely guise of classically trained guitarist Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), whom they espy performing in their school’s talent show. She is a devout Christian…but nobody’s perfect.

The trio of young leads have wonderful chemistry, and are able to telegraph those vacillating jumps between vibrant exuberance and painful awkwardness in a very authentic manner.

I should warn parents that while I refer to the film as “endearing”, and would definitely consider it “girl power-positive”, I wouldn’t call it “family friendly” (it’s labelled with the nebulous “NR”, but has plenty of R-rated dialog).

Writer-director Lukas Moodysson (who adapted the screenplay from a comic book created by his writer-musician wife, Coco) has fashioned an entertaining dramedy that nicely encapsulates the  roller coaster of emotions that define the early teen years.

Circle Q raunch: A Million Ways to Die in the West **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  7, 2014)

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Wild and woolly:  Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West

In his new comedy, director-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane seems bound and determined to prove that not only are there (as its title suggests), A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that there are also at least a million ways to tell a dick joke. Not that there isn’t an appropriate time and a place to tell dick jokes; speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell dick jokes to hostile drunks, I won’t cast the first stone. And as a believer in the credo that “nothing is sacred” in comedy, I’d be the first to defend MacFarlane’s right to sacrifice good taste for the sake of a quick yuk. That being said, you should be forewarned: This is a film with something to offend everybody.

Setting his story in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane casts himself as a neurotic sheep farmer named Albert, who is having relationship problems. After suffering the public humiliation of watching her man worm his way out of a gunfight with a rival rancher, Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has no choice but to break up with him (after all, “this is the American West in 1882”, as Albert reminds the audience throughout the film). So while Louise sets off to “work on herself”, Albert shares his romantic woes with his sympathetic friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a dim-witted cobbler, and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a hooker who is “saving herself” for marriage (“After all, we’re devout Christians,” Ruth tells her frustrated beau).

It wouldn’t be a self-respecting Western parody if a Bad Guy Wearing Black didn’t show up right about now. Enter evil sidewinder Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang. We know he’s a bad hombre, because he shoots a doddering prospector on “2”, after announcing that the draw will be on the count of “3” for dibs on the poor old feller’s gold (which he was going to steal anyway). Leatherwood’s beautiful wife Anna (Charlize Theron), while also a member of the gang, hints to be of a more compassionate nature, first showing obvious disgust at what has just happened and then rescuing the prospector’s dog before her trigger-happy husband plugs it too. Yes, Theron is an Outlaw with a Heart of Gold, expressly cast to become Albert’s new love interest (MacFarlane may stoop to any level of adolescent silliness to get laughs…but he’s not stupid).

While the film is far from a genre classic (especially when compared to its obvious touchstone, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) MacFarlane’s strategy of “let’s keep throwing gags against the wall and see how many  stick” hits the mark just enough times to keep it entertaining  (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning). Like the aforementioned Brooks film, MacFarlane assigns his characters anachronistic dialog and attitudes to imbibe it with detached irony.

This is how he “gets away” with some of the more P.C.-challenged gags, like a shooting gallery game called “Runaway Slave” (“Oh, that doesn’t seem right,” Albert says with a grimace…before taking aim). Or Anna’s tale of being forced into marriage with her husband at age 9 (“It’s OK. I didn’t want to be one of those 15 year-old spinsters.”). MacFarlane isn’t below pilfering from Harold and Kumar’s playbook, with a hilarious peyote trip sequence. He even borrows that franchise’s secret weapon, Neil Patrick Harris (stealing every scene as Albert’s romantic rival). As far as Western parodies go? I’ve seen worse. And there’s something inherently funny about sheep. Baa.

R.I.P. Bob Hoskins

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

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1942-2014

According to most of the perfunctory obits on the network newscasts and such over the past several days, the only work of note by the late great British actor Bob Hoskins was his starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yes, I’m sure we can all agree that was an entertaining romp (if a wee bit overrated) and Hoskins (who never gave a bad performance in his life, despite the material he may have had to work with at times) proved that he could hold his ground against a bevy of scene-stealing cartoon characters, but as far as I’m concerned, that was strictly a paycheck gig.

Granted, at a casual glance this guy may have reminded you more of your 10th grade shop teacher than say, George Clooney, but hand him a juicy character role that he could really sink his teeth into, and he’d go straight for the jugular, tearing up the screen like a fucking Cockney Brando. Standing 5 foot 6 and built like a fireplug, he could appear as huge and menacing as a killer grizzly, or as benign and vulnerable as a teddy bear. For a true appreciation of what Hoskins was “about”, just check out his more “actor-ly” movies…like my top five picks:

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Felicia’s Journey– Due to its disturbing subject matter, writer-director Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller/character study does not make for an easy watch, but it does provide an ideal showcase for Hoskins to fully flex his instrument.

In this film, he plays an introverted, middle aged man named Joseph who works as a catering manager. He is obsessed with his late mother, who was a TV chef. He whiles away evenings in his kitchen, cooking in tandem with Mom via old videotapes of her program (while Egoyan’s film is not a comedy, Hoskins’ portrayal has echoes of Rod Steiger’s creepy “Mr. Joyboy” in The Loved One).

As he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an equally insular young Irish woman named Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who is in search of the cad who left her in the lurch after getting her pregnant, there are disturbing reveals about Joseph’s past that will have you wishing that Felicia would get herself far away from this man, and quickly. As he does in most of his films, Egoyan uses a non-linear narrative and deliberate pacing to build up to a powerfully emotional denouement.

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Inserts-If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

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The Long Good Friday– If I had to whittle it down to my “#1” favorite Hoskins performance (no simple task), it would be the one he gives as “Harold Shand”, in John Mackenzie’s 1980 Brit noir. Harold is a “hard” Cockney gangster boss, on the verge of forging an ambitious alliance with an American crime syndicate. Unfortunately, a local rival is bent on throwing a spanner in the works, using any means necessary. Harold finds himself in a race against time to find out who is responsible before “they” succeed in sabotaging the deal.

Screenwriter Barrie Keeffe has a keen ear for dialog, and applies dabs of dark humor throughout. Cinematographer Phil Meheux makes great use of London locales. Helen Mirren is a standout as Harold’s mistress, who also serves as his unofficial (and formidable) consigliere (Hoskins and Mirren reunited onscreen for the 2001 film Last Orders). In the film’s closing scene (a lengthy, uninterrupted close up of Harold’s face) Hoskins delivers a master class in acting, without uttering one word. Gritty, brutal and uncompromising, this ranks as one of the best British crime films of all time.

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Mona Lisa– Hoskins gives a nuanced, Oscar-nominated turn as a “thug with a heart of gold” in Neil Jordan’s brilliant crime fable. Fresh out of stir, Hoskins is offered a gig by his ex-boss, a London crime lord for whom he took the fall (Michael Caine). Hoskins becomes the chauffeur for a high class call girl (Cathy Tyson) who serves select clientele in discreet liaisons at posh hotels. The pair’s “oil and water” personality mix gets them off to a dicey start, but their relationship morphs into something unexpectedly rich and meaningful (and it’s not what you’re thinking). The twists and turns keep you riveted up to the end. Hoskins and Tyson have great screen chemistry (like a streetwise Tracy and Hepburn) which injects this otherwise unsettling tale with much genuine heart and soul.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC TV version)- Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), this 1978 production is rife with Potter’s signature themes: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by an occasional, completely incongruous song and dance number (Potter was a fabulous writer, but I would never want to be in his head).

Hoskins gives a superb, heartbreaking performance as a married traveling sheet music salesman living in Depression-era England. His life takes interesting turns once he is smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two creepy brothers. It’s best described as a ‘film noir musical’. Far superior to the ill-advised U.S. feature film remake released several years later (with Steve Martin in the lead role).

 

The river must flow: Watermark ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

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Oh, how pretty…depressing: Watermark

You know that schoolyard taunt, “Take a picture…it’ll last longer”? Sadly, that could one day become a truism in regards to our planet’s most essential element: water. This explains why photographer Edward Burtynsky refers to his beautiful yet disturbing bird’s-eye images that are featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark as a “lament” to this dissipating resource. I hear snickering. Water is a finite resource?! As long as it keeps raining, we’re cool, right? Until you recall that 97.5% of the water on Earth is saltwater (which we continue to pollute like there’s no tomorrow) leaving 2.5% freshwater…out of which 70% remains frozen in the polar icecaps (and they are shrinking). As Jacques Cousteau once wisely advised, “We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.”

This documentary represents the second collaboration between Burtynsky and Baichwal; their first was 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes. In my review of that film, I wrote:

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a sort of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Ditto the imagery paraded before us in Watermark. Like its predecessor, the film is equal parts visual tone poem and cautionary eco-doc; although the emphasis here is on mankind’s cavalier attitude toward that aforementioned link between the life and water cycles. Some happy exceptions are evidenced, within certain venerated rituals of Earth’s more ancient cultures.

One such event, the mass river-bathing ceremonies conducted by tens of millions of Hindu faithful who congregate at the confluence of India’s holiest rivers during the annual Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, provides the film’s most beautiful sequence. Yet, within a stone’s throw of the same Mother Ganges, we also witness the doings at a water-intensive Bangladesh tannery, where poisons are spewed right back into the water table. This is the maddening dichotomy that gets to the heart of the matter. At this point in time (and as evidenced by Burtynsky’s photographic “laments”) Mother Earth isn’t politely asking, she’s telling: Clean up your room…NOW.

Tracks of my fears: Last Passenger (*1/2) & a Top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2014)

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Uh…I believe that was my stop: Last Passenger

You don’t see that many train thrillers these days. They’re still around, but it seems that filmmakers aren’t pumping them out as frequently as they once did. And if you do see one, more often than not you have seen it before. Could it simply be “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”? Don’t know. Mongo only pawn, in game of life. Have something to do with where choo-choo go. Or perhaps it’s one of those movie genres that has simply played itself out. End of the line, literally and figuratively. But they do still try (oh, how they try!).

The latest attempt is the UK import Last Passenger, the feature-length debut for writer-director Omid Nooshin. Dougray Scott stars as a doctor (a widower) headed home on a late night London commuter train with his young son (Joshua Kaynama). As the train nears the end of its run, only a handful of passengers are left, including a young woman (Kara Tointon) bent on ingratiating herself with the doctor and his son, a young Polish hothead (Iddo Goldberg) who gets belligerent when a train guard asks him to put out his cigarette, a quiet and unassuming middle aged woman (Lindsay Duncan) and an enigmatic businessman (David Schofield).

Once the young hothead calms down, normalcy returns. All seems quiet. Too quiet. Faster than you can say “the lady vanishes”, the train guard mysteriously disappears, right about the time the  passengers realize the train is blowing by its regularly scheduled stops…and “someone” has sabotaged the brakes. Uh-oh.

It reads like an intriguing setup for some good old-fashioned “thrills and chills on a runaway train”, but unfortunately the proceedings get bogged down by lackluster character development, uneven pacing, over-reliance on red herrings and gaping plot holes big enough to drive a flaming, out-of-control locomotive through.

Scott and Goldberg do the best they can with the material that they’re given, but Duncan’s talents are completely wasted and Tointon, while lovely, makes for a woodenly unconvincing romantic interest. I don’t know, maybe they caught me on a bad night, but if you buy the ticket, you’re going to have to take the ride. I’d rather take the bus. Or walk.

OK,  this week’s film  isn’t exactly a genre classic. However, if you are still up for catching a train thriller, here are my picks for 5 that are:

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La Bete Humaine– The term film noir hadn’t become part of the cinematic lexicon yet, but Jean Renoir’s naturalistic 1938 thriller could arguably be considered one of the genre’s blueprints; in fact, it still looks and feels quite contemporary. Jean Gabin is mesmerizing as a brooding train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits uncontrollable acts of violence, usually precipitated by sexual excitation (Freudians will have a field day with all those POV shots of Gabin chugging his big, powerful locomotive through long dark tunnels).

The beautiful Simone Simon sets the mold for all future femme fatales, played with an earthy sexuality not usually found in films of the era. Curt Courant’s moody cinematography, and an overall vibe of existential malaise doesn’t exactly make for a popcorn flick, but noir fans will eat it up. Fritz Lang’s 1954 remake, Human Desire starred Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.

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Emperor of the North– The “train-top donnybrook” is a time-honored tradition in action movies (and has helped put more than one stunt man’s kid through college), but for my money, few can top the climactic confrontation between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in this 1973 adventure directed by the eclectic Robert Aldrich.

Marvin plays a Depression-era hobo who is considered a sort of “A lister” among those who ride the rails of the Pacific Northwest; the ultimate “ramblin’ guy” who knows how to keep one step ahead of the dreaded railroad bulls. Borgnine plays his nemesis, a sadistic railroad conductor who prides himself on the fact that no hobo has ever made it to the end of the line on his watch (he sees to that personally, usually in medieval fashion). Marvin is up for the challenge; it’s a steam-powered “battle of the titans”. Keith Carradine gives an interesting performance as a cocky, not-so-bright wannabe who attaches himself to Marvin’s coattails. The film works as both rollicking adventure yarn and offbeat character study.

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The Lady Vanishes– This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description.

The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out (oh, he may have some romantic motivations as well). Full of great twists and turns, and the Master truly keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may seem creaky, but for my money, that’s what lends this film its charm. It’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

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Silver Streak– Director Arthur Hiller and Harold & Maude screenwriter Colin Higgins teamed up for this highly entertaining 1976 comedy-thriller, an unabashed homage to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Gene Wilder stars as an unassuming, bookish fellow who innocently becomes enmeshed in murder and intrigue during a train trip from L.A. to Chicago. Along the way, he also finds romance with a charming woman (Jill Clayburgh) who works for a shady gentleman (Patrick McGoohan) and bromance with a car thief (Richard Pryor) who may be his best hope for getting out of his predicament.

It’s pure popcorn escapism, bolstered by the genuine chemistry between the three leads. All the scenes with Wilder and Pryor together are pure comedy gold. Pryor had originally been slated to team up with Wilder two years earlier, as “Sherriff Bart” in Blazing Saddles, but Cleavon Little got the part; Wilder and Pryor ended up doing 3 more films together after Silver Streak.

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The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (original version)- In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled terrorists who hijack a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character, major to minor, is soaking in it),

Beginners and losers: Alan Partridge ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 19, 2014)

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The drinkin’ I did on my last big gig

Made my voice go low

They said that they liked the ‘younger sound’

When they let me go

-From “W-O-L-D”, by Harry Chapin

Four score and seven years ago (OK…1974) I was a neophyte DJ working the midnight-6am shift at an AM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The call letters, KFAR, were apropos; this was about as far fucking north as you could live on planet Earth and still have a radio career. I have never forgotten a nugget of wisdom imparted to me by a veteran jock, who, perhaps sensing my Pollyanna enthusiasm , took me aside one day. “You’re still young,” he said with a world-weary sigh, “So I’ll tell you something about small market radio stations, Dennis. There are  two types of people who work here: Beginners, and losers.” I was the beginner, so…I assume he knew of what he spoke.

No character embodies this axiom better than Alan Partridge, the creation of droll English actor-comedian Steve Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci (the comic genius behind the BBC political sitcom The Thick of It). A smarmy, egotistical “program presenter” of middling talent and perennially underwhelming accomplishment, Alan (played by Coogan) nonetheless persists in orbiting about the showbiz peripheral like an angry bee, despite continual failure.

This stalwart refusal to surrender dreams of stardom makes Alan oddly endearing, despite the fact he’s a self-absorbed asshole. UK TV viewers (and Anglophiles like yours truly) have become fixated on following Alan’s ever-downward career trajectory. It began in the mid-90s, with the one-season BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You, which “documented” the eponymous ill-fated variety program created (and ultimately destroyed) by its prickly, passive-aggressive host.

Several years later, Coogan and Iannucci resurrected the character in I’m Alan Partridge, a two-season series that picks up Alan’s story as he moves back to his hometown of Norwich, in the wake of his humiliating failure as a national TV personality. He has managed to snag the graveyard shift on a local radio station (see paragraph 1) where he spins 80s synth-pop hits for residents of the sleepy little hamlet.

By season 2, he’s living in a trailer with his young Ukrainian girlfriend, picking up whatever gigs he can in between making desperate pitches to stone-faced BBC executives. Whereas Knowing Me Knowing You was more showbiz satire, I’m Alan Partridge has darker tones; Alan emerges more as a figure like John Osborne’s Archie in The Entertainer; or a quietly desperate character from a Ray Davies song. It’s a ‘cringe-comedy’; funny, yet discomfiting  (like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

The most recent chapter of the Alan Partridge saga was parlayed via the 12-episode series, Mid Morning Matters (2010-2011), which finds Alan wearily settling for his career as a radio personality at a small market station, hosting a slightly higher profile air shift on “North Norfolk Digital”. Coogan and Iannucci ease up on the pathos that informed I’m Alan Partridge and go for the belly laughs in this series. And the laughs are plentiful, mostly thanks to Alan’s interaction with fellow staff, particularly “Side-kick Simon” (Tim Key) and Alan’s inability to complete one single interview without somehow offending his guests.

Which brings us to the new feature film  Alan Partridge (released as Alpha Papa in the UK this past fall). In this outing (directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and twin brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons) we find Alan (Coogan) still ensconced in the air chair at North Norfolk Digital, with Side-kick Simon (Key) covering his flank. Alan is waging his usual charm offensive, with song outros like “You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond…truly the ‘King of the Jews’!” and challenging his listeners to ponder and weigh in on the big questions like, “What is the worst ‘-monger’? Iron, fish, rumor…or war?”

However, it is not business as usual with upper management, who call Alan into a meeting  to inform him North Norfolk Digital is about to be absorbed by a media conglomerate, who want to make some staff cuts. Alan dodges the bullet, but his old pal Pat (Colm Meaney) is not so lucky. The new owners want to pick up younger listeners, and Pat is seen as too stodgy. Pat doesn’t take it so well; he comes back with a gun and takes hostages. Alan becomes the reluctant liaison between Pat and the police in the resulting standoff; hilarity ensues.

I know that may not sound like the setup for a riotous comedy, but it works as such, thanks to the sharp writing, smart direction and deft ensemble work from the cast, right down to the smallest roles. Meaney (a fine actor equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles) plays it fairly straight, lending the film an edge and genuine poignancy at times.

Still, this is ultimately Coogan’s show; he’s inhabited this uniquely weird character over so many years with such commitment that it’s nearly impossible to figure out where Coogan begins and Partridge ends, or vice-versa (not unlike Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas). But you needn’t ponder that. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of laugh therapy…something we could all use.

Swinging 60-ish: On My Way *** & Le Week-End ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 12, 2014)

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Grandmere du jour: On My Way

So if you have been staying away from theaters because you’re one of those folks who feels the majority of Hollywood product these days is just big, dumb, loud (in 3-D IMAX) and targeting sub-literate 12 year-olds, I have good news for you. Two (count ’em, two) eminently watchable flicks for grownups. Two films featuring fully fleshed out characters over 60…who are neither senile nor terminally ill (!).

(First up). I think smoking is a disgusting habit. But there’s something about a beautiful French woman puffing on a Gitane that makes it seem…how do you say? SoDamSexy. Consider Catherine Deneuve, who maintains her ageless allure even while taking up a chunk of screen time in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way bumming cigarettes, scrounging for money to buy cigarettes, desperately seeking any place that sells cigarettes, and of course, chain-smoking cigarettes.

Deneuve is Bettie, an ex-beauty queen (Miss Brittany 1969!) turned restaurateur, who has actually been on the cigarette wagon, at the encouragement of her cashier (Claude Gensac) who also happens to be her mom. But Bettie is about to fall off the wagon. She has reluctantly inherited her family-owned eatery, which is operating barely above water.

Living with her overly-protective elderly mom further elevates Bettie’s stress level, and now she hears it through the grapevine that her lover has dumped her for someone else (“Some 25 year-old slut,” her mom informs her, unhelpfully adding, “…a beautician.”). Say…anybody got a smoke?

Suddenly overwhelmed by life in general, Bettie impetuously hops into her car Thelma and Louise-style and hits the road, with (as Chuck Berry once sang) no particular place to go. When she calls one of her employees a day or two later to assure everyone that she hasn’t gone missing, she finds out that her estranged daughter Muriel (Camille) has been desperately trying to reach her. Muriel has had a last-minute shot at an internship in Brussels, but can’t find anyone else available to take her precocious son (Nemo Schiffman, real-life son of the director) to his grandfather’s house in the country.

To the surprise of both her daughter and herself, Bettie agrees to do her the solid (despite the awkwardness of barely knowing her grandson and having never even met her daughter’s father-in-law). And so they are off on their adventures through pastoral provincial France.

While Bercot’s script (co-written with Jerome Tonnerre) doesn’t venture too far from the traditional road movie tropes (unexpected detours, episodic meet-ups with quirky characters, etc.) the film is buoyed by her intelligent direction and the ever-radiant Deneuve’s engaging performance. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, The Artist) nicely captures the sun-dappled beauty of central France for a pleasing backdrop.

It’s interesting, I finally got around to seeing Alexander Payne’s Nebraska recently; and I found On My Way to be strikingly similar. Both films examine an aging parent and an adult child coming to grips with an estranged relationship.

Granted, Deneuve’s sixty-something character is relatively “younger” and more sound of mind than Bruce Dern’s dementia-suffering octogenarian, but both of these protagonists need to embark on a meandering road trip before ultimately coming home (both literally and figuratively) to the realization that what they were really looking for was tucked away in the bosom of their family all along…unconditional love.

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Just another happy couple: Duncan and Broadbent in Le Week-End

Among the Boomers, who are now finding themselves irrevocably “turning into their parents” and thereby forced to commit previously unthinkable acts (e.g., sheepishly flashing an AARP membership card for a senior discount, or maybe going out for dinner at 4pm) those who are married with children arguably face the most dreaded crossroads of all: The Empty Nest Years.

Personally, I wouldn’t know, being a barren bachelor, but you know…this is what I’ve heard. The kids all have moved away, and now here we are, staring at each other across the table thinking: “So…now what do we do for excitement?”

If taking a young lover or a new sports car is off the table, how about a weekend in Paris? That’s what English couple Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) are banking on to spice things up for their anniversary. That is the setup for Le Week-End, an uneven yet absorbing effort from Notting Hill director Roger Michell and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid screenwriter Hanif Kureishi.

Meg and Nick, both academics, don’t appear overtly affectionate, but they seem comfortable with…whatever “it” is that they do have (like a well-worn yet cozy pair of slippers you won’t toss). However, once they run into an old colleague (Jeff Goldblum, playing the Ugly American to the hilt) and he invites them to a soiree at his upscale Parisian digs (swarming with French hipsters), the facade crumbles.

The film is marketed as a comedy, but Kureishi’s literate screenplay is darker in tone; closer to Harold Pinter or Edward Albee (at times, Nick and Meg are like a benign George and Martha). Still, Paris is gorgeous, Duncan and Broadbent give great performances, no shots are fired…and there isn’t even one car chase.