Tag Archives: 2015 Reviews

I got yer top 10 right heah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2015)


‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2015. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I’ve been able to cover since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every release (that pesky 9-5 gig keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:

Chappie– This is the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). While there are echoes here of nearly every “AI-goes-awry” cautionary tale since Metropolis (plus a large orange soda), through their creation of the eponymous character, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell nonetheless manage to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. Once you’ve cut through all the bombast and the obligatory action tropes in the narrative, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, even timeless kind of resonance. [Full review]

Fassbinder: Love without Demands– By the time he died at age 37 in 1982, the iconoclastic German director-screenwriter-actor (and producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc.) Rainier Werner Fassbinder had churned out 40 feature films, a couple dozen stage plays, 2 major television film series, and an assortment of video productions, radio plays and short films. Mind you, this was over a 15-year period. Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen does an amazing job of tying together the prevalent themes in Fassbinder’s work with the personal and psychological motivations that fueled this indefatigable drive to create, to provoke, and to challenge the status quo. [Full review]

An Italian Name– If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt two subgenres I have dubbed The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures. This breezy 94 minute social satire plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. I was also blissfully unaware that it was first adapted as a 2012 French film, so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. [Full review]

Liza, the Fox Fairy– If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. [Full review]

Love and Mercy– Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Actually, there are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’ n’ roll biopics I’ve seen in years. [Full review]

A Pigeon sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence– Full disclosure…I initially gave this film an appraisal that was ambivalent at best. But as I have said in the past, I reserve the right to occasionally change my mind; and since I’ve had some time now to sit on my branch and reflect, I’ve decided it belongs on this list. That doesn’t mean that I’m any closer to understanding what the fuck this movie is “about” any more so than previous. How do I summarize a film cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes sharing little in common save for the fact that they share little in common…why bother? [Full review]

Song of the Sea– Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells with another lovely animated take on Irish folklore, this one steeped in “selkie” mythology. Moore has fashioned a family-friendly entertainment that feels like an instant classic; imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernable warmth in Moore’s skilled use of hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days. [Full review]

Tangerines– This Estonian-Georgian production was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, who  sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 90s. While there are touchstones like La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, the film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  [Full review]

Trumbo– One could draw many historical parallels with the present from this fact-based drama by director Jay Roach, which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms). Bryan Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era Hunter S. Thompson. While not as emotionally resonant as the thematically similar 1976 film The Front, Trumbo happily shares a like purpose, by providing something we need right now…a Rocky for liberals. [Full review]

When Marnie Was There– Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It’s gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling. [Full review]

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And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]


Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac


Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor


The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World


Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon


Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip


Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister


The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color


Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

Hey Santa! Pass us that bottle, will ya? (A mix tape)

By Dennis Hartley

Being that it’s the holidays and all, it seems good a time as any to share my Top 10 favorite  songs of the season. Alphabetically…

Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland – Grandaddy

The stockings are hung with irony in this CA indie band’s rendition.

Christmas in Hollis – Run DMC

To my knowledge, the first Xmas rap; a classic! The elf is disturbing.

A Christmas Song– Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson decries the commercialization; gets drunk with Santa.

 Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid

Oy, the mullets! Still quite moving 30 years on, and for a good cause.

Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon

If you give peace a chance, good will towards men will surely follow.

I Am Santa Claus – Bob Rivers

Funniest Christmas parody song ever, by the “Twisted Tunes” gang.

  I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake

Such a beautiful song. Great live version with Ian Anderson on flute.

  Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth-David Bowie & Bing Crosby

Yes, this really happened. Years before Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

 2000 Miles – The Pretenders

A lovely chamber pop rendition, and Chrissie’s vocals are sublime.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas– Jacob Miller (w/ Ray I)

An ire, ire, ire Xmas wish from the late great Inner Circle front man.

Happy Crimble and a very New Year!

Through a glass, darkly: The Tainted Veil ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2015)


In my 2013 review of the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, I wrote:

[…] Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to publicly speak his mind on hot-button issues. The Islam quotient is best summarized by an interviewee who says “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […]

What Ali went through back in the 1960s was a romp in the fields compared to what every day law-abiding Americans who happen to be Muslim have to put up with in our current political climate; particularly in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting incident.

Between the vile hate rhetoric spewing from certain presidential hopefuls and wingnut commentators, and the only slightly more subtle notes of hysteria ginned up by mainstream media outlets who should know better, I would imagine many of these folks are involuntarily compelled to look over their shoulder as they go about their daily lives.

Am I being shrill? Alex Wagner interviewed Dr. Suzanne Barakat on MSNBC’s All In this past Thursday. She is the sister of Deah Barakat, one of the 3 Muslim students who were slain by a neighbor this past February in Chapel Hill (authorities have not ruled out  a hate crime).

At one point in the interview, Wagner asks Dr. Barakat (who works at San Francisco General) what her personal experience has been, as a professional who happens to wear a head scarf. She recalls fellow hospital workers making comments like “…she mustn’t be a terrorist…because she has a badge.”

Apparently, this is not a sporadic occurrence; she adds “I was almost run over the other day in the parking lot by a patient leaving the hospital, who stuck out his middle finger and called me [an] ‘effing B’ [sic].” She’s a doctor. An American citizen. All her attacker saw was a woman wearing a hijab.

All the more reason for me to bring a rather timely new documentary to your attention. While ostensibly a PBS Frontline-styled, multi-viewpoint treatise “about” the venerable Muslim tradition requiring a woman to wear a head scarf in public, The Tainted Veil is also a kind of litmus test that subtly prompts a non-Muslim viewer to step back and take stock of his or her own autonomic response when encountering a person who is so attired.

When a modern-day Muslim woman dons a hijab, what does it telegraph to the world? Does it denote a personal spiritual conviction? Is it a cultural/ideological symbol; a kind of uniform? A fashion statement? A feminist statement? A symbol of male oppression?

With their eclectic array of interviewees, which includes scholars (Islamic, Christian and Jewish), clergy, educators, liberals, conservatives and a cross-section of Muslim women around the world who have worn the hijab, co-directors Ovidio Salazar, Nahla Al Fahad and Mazen al Khayrat demonstrate that the answer to all those questions could be “yes.”

Some viewers may be flummoxed that the film doesn’t adhere to any specific point of view; but that is precisely what I liked about it. It doesn’t take sides, and by not doing so it stimulates the kind of open-minded dialogue that we need to have in a day and age of such acute political and cultural polarization.

As one of the interviewees observes (paraphrasing Edward Said), “We are not living in a clash of civilization, but a clash of ignorance…people don’t approach each other, even though we live in a ‘connected’ world.” We’d best find a path to connecting with one another soon, because as one of the religious scholars cautions, “When Earth lives in misery, the heavens bloom.” Er, amen?

Back to the future with Roger and Gene

By Dennis Hartley

Apropos to the opening weekend of The Force Awakens, Chaz Ebert unearthed a fabulously entertaining vintage Nightline clip over at her blog that features a three way dust-up (quite civil, actually) between her late husband Roger, Gene Siskel and venerable New York-based critic John Simon. The year was 1983, the subject at hand was the original Star Wars trilogy. Return of the Jedi had recently opened, apparently prompting Simon to go on a tear reiterating his disdain for the franchise. He had famously lambasted the 1977 original, writing:

Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its highfalutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a “future” cast to them: Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science of any place or period.

I sense hostility.

Anyhoo…Ted Koppel was the moderator, John Simon played Darth Vader, and Roger and Gene stood in for Luke and Han. Check it out:

God, I miss Siskel & Ebert (I wrote a tribute a few years back). They may have not have always seen eye to eye, but as evidenced in the clip they could be a formidable tag team. I love the part where Simon champions Tender Mercies over Return of the Jedi as a film  he would take his (hypothetical) children to see. Tender Mercies is a great film, but if I wanted to treat my (hypothetical) kids to a Saturday matinee, I’d probably opt for the fun space western with the cute robots over the painterly character study about the, erm… recovering alcoholic .

But that’s just me.

Bat s#!+ fever: Trump gets Nuge nod

By Dennis Hartley




So the Nuge is a yuuge Trump fan. I’ll be damned! From Billboard:

“Know it, Donald Trump is the hellraiser America has needed for a very longtime [sic],” Nugent wrote today (Dec. 16). “He & Ted Cruz may be the only hope to end the criminal jihad on America by our own corrupt punkass government, media & bigBiz goons.”

Twin brothers from a different mother. 2 peas in a pod. 2 in the chamber, 32 in the clip…and 2 tacos short of a combination plate.

Reminds me of a song:

America’s in yuuge trouble. Is there a doctor in the house?


Oh god. We are in YUUGE trouble…

“I like you, Donny…there’s no lying in you.”

By Dennis Hartley

With the announcement this week that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will be now be facing a military court-martial on the charges of desertion from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009,  newscasters have seen fit to re-run one of Donald Trump’s Greatest Hits on a continuous loop:

Yeah, just shoot him! No trial.  Lovely message to convey, with our country ensconced in a 24/7 cycle of gun violence. Very presidential.

The Commander-in-Chief of the 101st Chair-borne went on to riff, “As far as I’m concerned, send Bergdahl back, drop him right in the middle of  [his former Taliban captors] and they will take care of it.”

Of course, his supporters react with wild cheers to such “straight talk”. I suspect that this is how they perceive their Fearless Leader:

But  in reality, Trump’s sense of justice seems more in line with this:

She just smiled- Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2015)


I met a girl who sang the blues                                                                                         And I asked her for some happy news                                                                         But she just smiled and turned away

-from “American Pie”, by Don McLean

“I got treated very badly in Texas.”

-Janis Joplin, on her formative years

Let’s face it. We’ve all been bullied at some point in time (ah…school days!). And we know how humiliated and debased it makes you feel. Thankfully, most people are able to take the philosophical road; dust themselves off, get over it, and move on with their lives. Besides, as Michael Stipe posited: “everybody hurts,” right? Welcome to the human race.

But there are some more sensitive souls who never quite recover from such trauma. At best, they trudge through the rest of their lives plagued with doubts, anxieties, and low self-esteem. At worst, they meltdown at some point and go on a tri-county shooting spree.

Happily, there is a middle ground; particularly for those with a creative bent. They tend to gravitate toward the performing arts…becoming comedians, actors, and musicians. That’s because, when you’re on stage (and I speak from personal experience) there’s nothing more redeeming than the sound of applause. And when you’re having a really good night, truly connecting with an audience and “feeling the love”? It’s better than sex.

Of course, the downside is that those moments are ephemeral; you can’t be “on stage” 24/7. As soon as you come down from that high in the spotlight, you’re back to your life…and all those doubts, anxieties and feelings of low self-esteem creep back in. For such souls, that love and adulation acts as a powerful opiate; and when they’re not getting their fix, they scrabble for proxies, and (as Joni Mitchell sings in “Coyote”) “…take their temporary lovers…and their pills and powders, to get them through this passion play.”

“On stage, I make love to twenty-five thousand people; and then I go home alone.”

-Janis Joplin

In Amy Berg’s new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.

“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent treasure trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians and significant others.

You get a sense of the Janis who never fully healed from the psychic damage incurred from the mean-spirited ridicule she weathered growing up in a small (-minded) Texas burg; shamed for her physicality, unconventional fashion sense, and for harboring aspirations that were atypical from “other chicks”. She once said, “I always wanted to be an ‘artist’, whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought.” We see how she made her breakthrough and found her own “voice” by channeling the soulful essence of her idols Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Odetta and Aretha.

Despite undercurrents of melancholy and genuine sadness, and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors.

Blu-ray reissue: Mulholland Drive ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)


Mulholland Drive – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring).

What ensues is the usual Lynch mindfuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third (or was it fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Criterion’s sparkling transfer brings new depth to the light and shadow of Peter Deming’s cinematography. Extras include new interviews with Deming, Lynch, Watts and Harring.

Blu-ray reissue: Miracle Mile ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)


Miracle Mile – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

“Someone” (in this case, Kino Lorber) finally has seen fit to release a properly formatted HD edition of this 1988 sleeper (previously available only as MGM’s dismal “pan and scan” DVD). Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists.

Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000, which also made its Blu-ray debut this year courtesy of Kino Lorber). Extras include a commentary track by film critic Walter Chaw, along with the director.