Tag Archives: 2015 Reviews

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 Movies about the Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 21, 2015)


I felt it apropos on this Oscar Eve to honor Hollywood’s annual declaration of its deep and abiding love for itself with my picks for the top 10 movies that are all about…the movies. As usual, in alphabetical order:


Cinema Paradiso Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to the cinema may be too sappy for some, but for those of us who (to quote Pauline Kael) “lost it at the movies” it’s chicken soup for the soul. A film director (Jacques Perrin) returns to his home town in Sicily for a funeral, triggering flashbacks from his youth. He reassesses the relationships with two key people in his life: his first love, and the person who instilled his life-long love of the movies. Beautifully acted and directed; keep the Kleenex handy!


Day for Night– The late French film scholar and director Francois Truffaut was, first and foremost, a movie fan. And while one could argue that many of his own movies are rife with homage to the filmmakers who inspired him, this 1973 entry is his most unabashed and heartfelt declaration of love for the medium (as well as his most-imitated work). Truffaut casts himself as (wait for it) a director who is in the midst of a production with an international cast called Meet Pamela.

His “Pamela” is a beautiful but unstable young British actress (Jacqueline Bisset) who is gingerly stepping back into the spotlight after recovering from a highly publicized nervous breakdown. His petulant, emotionally immature leading man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a fool for love, which constantly distracts him from his work. He also has to coddle an aging Italian movie queen (Valentia Cortese) who is showing up on set three sheets to the wind and flubbing her scenes.

Truffaut cleverly mirrors the backstage travails of his cast and crew with those of the characters in the “film-within-the-film”. Somehow, it all manages to fall together…but getting there is half the fun. Truffaut gives us a genuine sense of what a director “does” (in case you were wondering) and how a good one can coax magic from seemingly inextricable chaos.


Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality (while I wish his legion of fiercely loyal fans all the best, Burton’s predilection for creating overly-precious phantasmagorical and macabre fare is an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire).

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited intent here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau delivers a droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine.


8 1/2– Where does creative inspiration come from? It’s a simple question, but one of the most difficult to answer. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 classic probably comes closest to “showing” us…in his inimitable fashion. Marcello Mastroianni is fabulous as a successful director who wrestles with a creative block whilst being hounded by the press and various hangers-on. Like many Fellini films (all Fellini films?), the deeper you go, the less you comprehend. Yet (almost perversely), you can’t take your eyes off the screen; with Fellini, there is an implied contract between the director and the viewer that, no matter what ensues, if you’ve bought the ticket, you have to take the ride.


Hearts of the West– Jeff Bridges stars as a Depression-era Iowan rube, a wannabe pulp western writer with the unlikely name of Lewis Tater (the scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) Tater gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out West”. Serendipity lands him a job as a stuntman in Hollywood. The film also features one of Andy Griffith’s best performances. Veteran scene-stealer Alan Arkin is a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director. The breezy direction by Howard Zeiff (Private Benjamin), witty script by Rob Thompson and a great cast help make this one a winner.


The Kid Stays in the Picture– Look in the dictionary under “raconteur” and you will likely see a picture of the subject of this winning 2002 documentary by co-directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen. While it is basically a 90-minute monologue from legendary producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, etc.) talking about his life, loves and career, it adds up to a surprisingly intimate and fascinating “insider” purview of the Hollywood machine. Evans spins quite the tale of a powerful mogul’s rise and fall; by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. He’s so charming and entertaining that you won’t stop to ponder whether he’s making half this shit up. Visually inventive, thoroughly engaging, and required viewing for movie buffs.


Living in Oblivion– This criminally under-appreciated 1995 sleeper from writer-director Tom DiCillo deserves a wider audience. Sort of the Day for Night of indie cinema, the film centers on a NYC-based filmmaker (a wonderful Steve Buscemi) directing a no-budget feature. Much to his escalating chagrin, the harried director seems to be stuck in a hellish loop chasing an ever-elusive “perfect take” for a couple of crucial scenes. DiCillo uses a clever construct that really keeps you on your toes (that’s all I’m prepared to say…no spoilers).

DiCillo’s smart screenplay is full of quotable lines, and quite funny. Fabulous performances from a cast that reads like a “Who’s Who” of indie filmdom: Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage (in his first billed film role!). Dinklage delivers a hilarious rant about the stereotypical casting of dwarves in dream sequences. It has been rumored that Le Gros’ character (an arrogant Hollywood hotshot who has deigned to grace the production with his presence) was based on the director’s experience working with Brad Pitt (who starred in DeCillo’s 1991 debut , Johnny Suede). If that is really true, all I can say is…ouch!


The Story of Film: An Odyssey is one long-ass movie. Consider the title. It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. At 15 hours, it is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it must have been for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. Originally aired as a 15-part TV series in the UK, it made the rounds on the festival circuit as a five-part presentation. While the usual suspects are well-represented, Cousins’ choices for in-depth analysis are atypical (he has a predilection for African and Middle-Eastern cinema).

That quirkiness is what I found most endearing about this idiosyncratic opus; world cinema enjoys equal time with Hollywood. The film is not without tics. Cousins’ oddly cadenced Irish brogue requires steely acclimation, and he has a tendency to over-use the word “masterpiece”. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is obviously a labor of love by someone passionate about film, and if you claim to be, you have an obligation to see this.


The Stunt Man– “How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?”

That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is in the midst of filming an art-house flavored WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least. O’Toole chews major scenery, ably supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield. Despite the lukewarm reviews from critics upon original release, it has since gained status as a cult classic. This is a movie for people who love the movies.


Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Gidget goes submissive: Fifty Shades of Grey *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 14, 2015)


Fifty Shades of Grey: Makes 2 hours feel like  9 1/2 Weeks

Fifty Shades of Grey is either the most cleverly arch soft core porn parody of all time, or…they were trying to be serious. Hang on (with apologies to Jon Stewart), I’m receiving word that yes, they actually were trying to be serious. Oh…and I understand that it was apparently based on a novel, which I’m being told has done well with sales. I haven’t read the book, but if it is a virtually plotless, kinky sex fantasy that is curiously devoid of any kinkiness or sexiness, then I’m here to tell you that this is one film that’s faithful to the book.

It’s your typical tale of a virginal English Lit major named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who meets cute with a hunky (and mysterious) Seattle-based 27 year-old bachelor billionaire businessman named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). And it’s like, you know, total kismet. Anastasia is a last-minute fill-in for her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), who was supposed to conduct an in-person interview with Mr. Grey at his corporate HQ for their college newspaper…but she got the flu (or something).

So anyway, Anastasia’s all like, you know, rolling her eyes and junk, but OK, she’ll do it, because she’s a good friend. Soon she is in Mr. Grey’s lofty, spacious and impressively appointed executive office, rattling off probing questions like “Are you gay?” from her roommate’s notes.

Faster than you can say “porn movie exposition”, Anastasia and Christian begin to display signs of Mutual Attraction. Mere days pass, and before Anastasia knows what hit her, Christian is handing her a contract for her to review and sign. You know, one of those contracts wherein the First Party (the Submissive) agrees to all the terms dictated by the Second Party (the Dominant), which are, to wit, Abandon all Hope, Ye Who Enter Here…and to cater to every sexual whim of her dominant male master.

Some intriguing avenues pop up, but are not explored. For instance, there’s a glimmer of Hitchcock’s Marnie in Christian; a tormented, sexually dysfunctional character who hints at possible trauma earlier in life that has left him incapable of affection and love. Instead, he remains a cardboard figure, with no sense of depth or backstory after we learn early on that He’s Mysterious (Dornan’s one-note performance, which vacillates somewhere between catatonic and Ben Stiller’s “blue steel” look from Zoolander, doesn’t help).

To her credit, Johnson (an oddly endearing morph of Zooey Deschanel and Charlotte Gainsbourg) gives a palpable impression she’s having fun with her character, occasionally rising above Kelly Marcel’s insipid script, especially in a scene where Anastasia calls a “business meeting” with Christian to negotiate contract terms (‘Anal fisting’? That’s right out…and what exactly is a ‘butt plug’?). If the film had been intended as parody, that scene would be comedy gold.

But alas, the film is neither comedy, nor is it drama. Nor is it particularly kinky (despite the lovingly fetishistic camera pans of the accouterments that supplement Christian’s “play room”). Most notably, it’s not in the least bit sexy. In fact, it barely qualifies as soft core; it’s about as erotic as a TV ad for Viagra. Despite the intrinsically provocative nature of its SM theme, the film comes off as weirdly sanitized (it might as well be a remake of Beach Blanket Bingo).

While it lightly flirts with gender politics (who’s really in control of the relationship?) it is not making any discernible political statement (like the similar but far superior 2002 film, Secretary, or going back further-Swept Away or The Night Porter). The end result is a total wash. There’s no “there” there. The film is its own 51st shade of grey. I’m reticent to lay blame at the feet of director Sam Taylor-Johnson, as I admired her debut film Nowhere Boy, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

I’m all for suspending my disbelief when I sit down to watch a narrative film (even a film that is somewhat devoid of a narrative…like this one, for example). But if you present me with a protagonist like Anastasia, who appears to be a literate, college-educated young woman with a strong sense of self, and then ask me to believe that she would miss so many red flags on the way to falling head over heels for a creepy sexual predator like Christian Grey? Not buying it for a second. Red flags, you ask? What about sweet talk like this: “I’d like to bite that lip. But I’m not touching you until I have written consent.” Or “I don’t do love.” Or “I don’t ‘make love’…I fuck.” (How dreamy! Betcha he says that to all the girls).

Not to mention the stalking behavior. Or the fact that he recoils from any attempt by Anastasia to express affection. Maybe I shouldn’t get so worked up; after all, who’s going to buy this premise anyway, in our modern, feminism-enlightened society? Wait a sec…now I’m being told that millions of people (the majority of them women) have literally bought into it…with  70 million copies of E.L. James’ books sold worldwide,  record-breaking pre-sales of nearly 3 million movie tickets.

So perhaps at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether this film is “good” or “bad”. Maybe it’s just one of those critic-proof “event” movies, so hotly anticipated that it comes out of the box robed by a protective cocoon of cultist devotees who will not be swayed by the nattering nabobs of negativism like Yours Truly.

After all, it’s only a movie. But it still begs the question: Why this film, with its weirdly draconian subtexts…and why now? Aren’t there enough stories on CNN about hostage-taking, torture and suffering (and lest we forget, ongoing systemic suppression of women around the world) to turn people off to the idea of hitching their star to an erotic fantasy about willingly signing up for this kind of shit?

Or am I overthinking again?