Tag Archives: 2016 Reviews

The Big Heat: The 10 Sweatiest Film noirs (and Neo-noirs)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 4, 2020)

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Hotter than the 4th of July”? Ice tea on standby:

Coronavirus. Massive unemployment. Murder hornets. Saharan dust… How could 2020 get any worse, you might ask.

With record-breaking scorching heat. That’s how.

Meteorologists on Tuesday revealed that July could bring unusually hot temperatures for more than two-thirds of the continental U.S., possibly matching the historic levels seen in 2011 and 2012.

A weather outlook released by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts “increased chances” for above-normal temperatures across most of the country as well as below-normal rainfall levels for the Four Corners and parts of the Central and Southern Plains.

Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist with IBM’s The Weather Company, said a pattern of high temperatures and boiling humidity in July could result in “potentially historic heat.”

“After a relatively warm June, we are expecting July to be unusually hot, with the most anomalous warmth focused in the north-central states Great Lakes region,” he told The Washington Post.

The extreme weather could hit parts of the country as soon as this weekend. Some areas in the Greats Lakes may see temperatures of up to 15 degrees above normal on Saturday, according to the Post.

In southern New England, meanwhile, temperatures could soar past 90 degrees by early next week. In the New York area, temperatures will be “slightly” above normal this Thursday, the National Weather Service projects.

The agency also predicts that limited rainfall and above-normal heat will lead to likely drought conditions for the Southern and Central Plains.

Oy.

So…with the mercury soaring in most parts of the country I thought I would curate a Top 10 “hot” noirs binge-watch…should you be so inclined. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous crime thrillers (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and spending a hot holiday weekend ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my apartment…but I can always dream). So here you go (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat (Amazon Prime) – A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming young character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke (Amazon Prime) – “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 drama.  Newman plays a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay is agog with classic lines), Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon steaming up the camera lens as the “car wash girl”.

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Dog Day Afternoon (Amazon Prime) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Sidney Lumet out-sops the competition. The AC may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale  is at once scary and heartbreaking as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low (Amazon Prime) – Akira Kurosawa’s multi-layered 1963 drama is adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who risks losing controlling shares of his company when he takes responsibility to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by bumbling kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the tableau subtly shifts from the executive’s comfortable, air-conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

While the film is perfectly serviceable as an absorbing police procedural, it delves deeper than a standard genre entry. It is also an examination of class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society.

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The Hot Spot (DVD only) – Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director of same over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

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In the Heat of the Night (Amazon Prime) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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The Night of the Hunter (Amazon Prime) – Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (Amazon Prime) – A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens.

An iconic noir and blueprint for ensuing entries in the “I love you too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” sub-genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel.

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Touch of Evil (Amazon Prime)– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear (Amazon Prime) / Sorcerer (Amazon Prime) -The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “existential noir” from sits atop that list.

Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.

It does take some time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel.

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If you’ve already seen The Wages of Fear, you might want to check out William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure Sorcerer, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics upon initial release. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars.

At any rate, it’s a well-directed, terrifically acted “update” of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film noir (I refer to it as an “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a letter from the director that was included with the 2014 Blu-ray).

Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack.

 

No words

By Dennis Hartley

(I am re-posting this piece from 2016, in commemoration of 9/11)

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I don’t get out much. In 60 years, I’ve yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Canada. That’s me…born to be mild. Oddly enough, however, I  was “out of the country”  on September 11, 2001.

OK, it was Canada. I was enjoying a 3-day getaway at Harrison Hot Springs, a beautiful Alpine setting in British Columbia. I was booked to check out of the hotel on Tuesday, September 11th.

I woke up around 9am that morning, figuring I had enough time to grab breakfast and one more refreshing soak in one of the resort’s natural springs-fed outdoor pools before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back to Seattle. I was feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Then I switched on CNN.

Holy fuck. Was this really happening? I actually did not understand what I was watching for several minutes. It was surreal. It was especially discombobulating to be out-of-country at the very moment the United States of America appeared to be under attack.

My first impulse was just to get back to the U.S.A. I was overcome with a sense of urgency that  I had to “do” something (realistically, of course…what could I do to help those poor souls in the towers?).

I went to the front desk to check out, and was advised by the clerk that there were reports that the U.S./Canada border checkpoints were closed (to this day, I’m not sure if that was just a rumor-I can’t track down any historical annotations).

I was also hearing from fellow guests that lines of vehicles were miles long at the checkpoints. At any rate, they were offering   American guests with a September 11 checkout a reduced rate if they preferred to try their luck on Wednesday.

With all the uncertainty and fear in the air, I decided to take them up on the offer and leave Wednesday morning instead (for all I knew, I could be returning to some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway). I was less than 200 miles from home geographically, but spiritually I might as well have been Matt Damon in The Martian.

As I didn’t own a cell phone or a laptop (yes, I know they existed in 2001…but I was a late adapter), CNN became my lifeline for the remainder of that horrible day. I’ll never forget  Aaron Brown’s marathon reportage. As awful as the situation was, he maintained the perfect tone. This may sound corny, but he was not only a level-headed source of information, but also my friend that day.  And apparently, I’m not alone in that assessment:

That, my friends, is what a good journalist does. Remember them?

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2016

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2016)

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since my pal Digby graciously offered me a crayon, a sippy cup and a weekly play date on her otherwise grownup site so I can scribble about pop culture. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who continues to support Hullabaloo and wish you and yours the best in 2017! ‘Tis the season to do a year-end roundup of the best films I reviewed in 2016. Alphabetically, not in order of preference:

The Curve – It’s tempting to synopsize Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders. (Full review)

Eat That Question – If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s documentary. Admittedly, the film plays best for members of the choir. If you’ve never been a fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. Still, if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb, the impressionistic approach manages to paint a compelling portrait.  (Full review)

Hail, Caesar! – Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen Brothers outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which they are able to construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. That said, there is another level to the film, one which (similar to the 2015 film Trumbo) depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the movie industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (in this case, a Hollywood “fixer” played by Josh Brolin). George Clooney hams it up as a dim-witted leading man who gets snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future (don’t ask). It’s supremely silly, yet enjoyable.  (Full review)

Home Care – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama with gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.   (Full review)

Jackie – Who among us (old enough to remember) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963? Pablo Larrain’s film fearlessly wades right inside its protagonist’s psyche, fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. The question of “why now?” might arise, to which I say (paraphrasing JFK)…“why not?”  (Full review)

Mekko – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from all. There’s more here than meets the eye, with subtexts about Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality.  (Full review)

Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

Snowden – Oliver Stone had a tough act to follow (Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour) when he tackled his biopic about Edgar Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices, but he pulls it off quite well. This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society. Stylistically speaking, the film recalls cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with a nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (Full review)

The Tunnel– Kim Seong-hun’s film is a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea, concerning a harried Everyman (Ha Jung-woo) who gets trapped in his car when a mountain tunnel collapses on top of him. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks (typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ). There’s more than meets the eye here; much akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.  Full review)

Weiner – Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given remarkable access to Anthony Weiner, his family and campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated 2013 N.Y.C. mayoral run. Their no-holds-barred film raises many interesting questions prompted in the wake of the former congressman’s “sexting” scandal (which led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011)…the most obvious one being: should ‘we’ be willing to forgive personal indiscretions (barring actual criminal offenses) of those we have voted into office? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s this chestnut: WTF were you thinking?! If you’re curious to see the film because you think it answers that one, don’t waste your time. However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get for those in the trenches, this is a must-see.   (Full review)

# # #

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]

2007

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

2008

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

2009

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

2010

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

2011

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

2012

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

2013

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

2014

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

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

Unsinkable: R.I.P. Debbie Reynolds

By Dennis Hartley

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2016 is ending like a bad Hollywood tearjerker. It’s tempting to say Debbie Reynolds died of a broken heart.  Perhaps she did.

Of course, Singin’ in the Rain is the first thing that comes to mind…

One of her best late-career turns was in Albert Brooks’ film Mother:

“It’s wonderful cheese…it comes from Switzerland.” Priceless. R.I.P.

Godspeed, Princess

By Dennis Hartley

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1956-2016

Can we just say that 2017 officially begins today?  Seriously, I’ve had it with you, 2016. You have more than worn out your welcome. Over.

I’ve  always felt Carrie Fisher missed her calling. Of course, she  will be forever cemented in our collective unconscious as Princess Leia; the smart, fearless, beautiful, and wisecracking heroine of the original Star Wars saga. But Carrie Fisher herself happened to be smart, fearless, beautiful, wisecracking ; a gifted comedic writer and raconteur. As we say in the business of show: she had “funny bones”.

Even if Star Wars had never been part of the equation, she would have taken her place alongside Fran Lebowitz  or Spalding Gray. If you’ve seen her autobiographical one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, when you’re done with your Star Wars marathon, do yourself a favor and catch it (I believe it’s still available  in HBO’s On Demand). You’ll see a Carrie Fisher who is brutally honest, self-effacing…and an absolute riot.

I bet she already has Ziggy Stardust and John Glenn in stitches. R.I.P.

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Guilty feet have got no rhythm: R.I.P. George Michael

By Dennis Hartley

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1963-2016

Even in its final week, 2016 just won’t let up with the grim reaping:

On Christmas Day, no less.  I wasn’t a rabid fan, but I admired his chops as a pop craftsman (anyone who sells 100 million units is doing something right).  Fabulous voice; especially on this personal favorite:

53 years old. Much too young to go. This friggin’ year over yet?

Don’t know where, don’t know when…

By Dennis Hartley

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As we head into Xmas weekend, let’s review the state of our union:

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Our illustrious President-Elect is busy ginning things up for WW III…

Meanwhile, our concerned Congress is blowing the lid off soy milk:

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Got milk? Twenty-five bipartisan members of Congress say if it’s from soybeans, almond or rice, it should not be labeled as milk.

Democratic Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and Republican Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, leading the charge against “fake milk,” signed a letter along with other Congressional members, asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate and take action against manufacturers of “milk” that doesn’t come from cows.

They want the FDA to require plant-based products to adopt a more appropriate name, other than milk, which they say is deceptive.

“We strongly believe that the use of the term ‘milk’ by manufacturers of plant-based products is misleading to consumers, harmful to the dairy industry and a violation of milk’s standard of identity,” the letter states.

Well, everything seems to be under control.  Happy holidays!

About bloody time: Yes is in!

By Dennis Hartley

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Last year, when Yes was nominated for the umpteenth time for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  I made my case:

Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, staring at Roger Dean’s art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gate-fold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent). Anyway, why this band hasn’t been inducted yet is beyond me. Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”)

Uh…what I said. At any rate, when it was announced today that Yes finally made the grade, I was overjoyed. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overreaction to something that is relatively inconsequential when contrasted with larger concerns going on in the world right now…but you know what? I’ve seen an inordinate number of my personal musical icons shuffled off to that great gig in the sky this year, so its nice to savor a little happy news about those who are still rockin’, eh?

And you know what else I’ve seen?

 

Michael and me in Trumpland

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2016)

Image result for sabina ohio

Growing up as a military brat is not easy. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

And so it was, back in the summer of 1968, that my dad received a reassignment from Ft. Wainwright, Alaska (where we had been stationed for 4 ½ years) to Clinton County Air Force Base, Ohio (yes, he was in the Army, but certain Army units were attached there…I could explain why, but if I did, I would then unfortunately have to kill you, and I am a man of peace).

Now, understand that Fort Wainwright was a sizable installation; and my family lived on-base. Living in the “family quarters” of a large army base is analogous to living in a dense metropolitan environment. Nobody is “from” the locality where you all happen to be thrown together; consequently there’s a rich diversity in a concentrated area…social, racial, religious, and cultural.

Not so much in the sleepy hamlet of Sabina (also known as “The Eden of Ohio”), which is where my family ended up living “off-base” from 1968-1969. The 2010 census counted 2,564 souls, of which 97.0% were white, 0.9% African American, 0.3% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.07% from other races, and 1.12% from one or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.15% of the population. I don’t have the town’s ethnic breakdown for 1968, but between my memories and my suspicions, those ratios likely have not deviated much since Sabina was founded in 1830.

You’re probably getting the picture here that Sabina’s populace is the opposite of “diversity”. There is also a tendency (I have found) in your smaller burgs, in your more rural areas, for the locals to be less than welcoming to “outsiders” and somewhat clannish (and since we are talking about Ohio, you could spell that with a “k” and not be historically inaccurate).

Now, before y’all get riled up and start to accuse yours truly of “flyover state” stereotyping, or painting with broad strokes (sins of the fathers, and all that), let me say that I am sure 99.9% of the folks currently living in beautiful Sabina, Ohio are good-hearted people…and fine, upstanding citizens.

However, my own personal interactions with some Sabina locals, specifically from autumn of 1968 through late summer of 1969, do not exactly make for pleasant memories. In fact, my 7th grade year was a living fucking hell. I’m aware that nearly anybody you would care to ask has an anecdote about getting “picked on” at school while they were growing up; the law of averages guarantees that you will be bullied at some point in your 12 years of public schooling.

But what I’m talking about here isn’t an isolated incident or two. What I’m talking about is unrelenting harassment, verbal and physical. What I’m talking about is being informed that “we’re going to be waiting for you after school to kick your ass” on a daily basis.

I’d been bullied before, but there was an added element to the intimidation unique to my Sabina experience. This was the first (but unfortunately, not the last) time someone ever called me a “kike” while pushing me around. I managed to keep most of this from my folks, until the day one of these bushwhacking yahoos sat behind me on the bus and boxed my ears so hard I had to see a doctor.

Good times.

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So what does my personal memoir of woe have to do with this week’s film review?  Well, as fate would have it, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, filmmaker Michael Moore has intuited the Clinton County seat of Wilmington as the perfect microcosm of what he calls “Trumpland” (Wilmington is only about ten miles from my old “stomping” grounds in Sabina).

Michael Moore in Trumpland (***) was an “October surprise” of sorts; sprung by Moore on an unsuspecting public with no advance hype. The high-concept title of this 73-minute film, (documenting a “one night only” performance piece by Moore) says it all…whether you are a fan or a hater-you know this is going to be a “fish-out-of-water” narrative, layered with irony. First, there’s the venue, the historic Murphy Theater. It’s prime benefactor? Glenn Beck (it burns!). And Moore takes pains to point out he’s in Clinton County, which is antipodal to Clinton country.

Aside from an opening montage featuring locals parroting Breitbart memes and reinforcing the more cartoonish stereotypes of the “typical” Trump voter, Moore suppresses any further urges to shoot fish in a barrel. In fact, Moore telegraphed his good intentions not only by making his show admission-free, but requested that “Trump Voters Welcome” be added to the theater’s marquee.

After taking a “show of hands” census to establish how many in the audience support Hillary, how many support Trump, and who is undecided or supporting independent candidates, it appears that he is dealing with a fairly balanced mix. Employing his trademark mix of entertaining shtick and genuine empathy, Moore attempts to build rapport with the Trump supporters, and really seems to get inside their heads. At least for the first 30 minutes…then, he pulls a bait-and-switch.

It’s subtle. After disarmingly confiding he’s never voted for either Clinton, he mentions the chapter “My Forbidden Love for Hillary” from “Downsize This!” to segue into…his forbidden love for Hillary. By the time he’s finished with what morphs into an impassioned summation of the humanity that’s always driven her dedication to public service, obscured and weather-beaten as it may be from enduring years of anti-Hillary vitriol and character assassination, there’s nary a dry eye in the house…Trump supporters included. It is a master class in rhetorical showmanship.

While my description of that rhapsodic interlude could indicate otherwise, the film is not a Hillary hagiography. For example, Moore makes no bones about his disappointment regarding some of Hillary’s voting decisions while she was serving in the Senate; and he promises to hold her feet to the fire on her campaign promises if she wins. But he also waxes hopeful; launching into a speculative Utopian reverie on how things will be once Hillary becomes POTUS (*sigh*).

It was clearly Moore’s intention that Trumpland (filmed October 7 and released a scant 2 weeks afterwards) would ideally be seen by as many people as possible before November 8. However, he was careful to cover all his bases. If there is one consistency about Michael Moore’s films, it is that they are prescient…and already, I can identify at least one nail he hit squarely on the head.

This comes in the form of another speculative scenario Moore lays out, this one for Trump supporters to envision, should the election go their way. Moore assures them that he feels their pain; as a fellow Midwesterner from a manufacturing town in neighboring Michigan, he “gets” the frustrations that have been building up within the ranks of a certain white, working-class demographic, why they are feeling squeezed out, and why Trump might appear to be their savior.

Suddenly, in a wonderfully theatrical flourish, Moore seems to shapeshift into a Trump voter. He talks about how they are going to feel on Election Day, how incredibly empowering it will be to put that “x” in the Trump box on their ballot card. It’s going to be the “…biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history” when their boy takes the White House. “It’s going to feel REAL good,” Moore assures them, “for about…a week.” Uh-oh. “A week?” What’s he mean by that?

It will kind of be like Brexit, Moore explains after a suitable dramatic pause to let things soak in. Remember how eager the Brexit supporters were to shake things up in their country, and give a big “fuck you” to Europe? Sure, they “won”. But then, buyer’s regret set in. There was even a desperate stab to petition for a re-vote, spearheaded by many of the very people who supported it!

OK, so maybe Trump voters haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but they will. Their soon-to-be Fearless Leader is sending up oodles of red flags with kleptocratic cabinet appointment after kleptocratic cabinet appointment. Now, that seems to be in direct contradiction to his campaign stance as champion of the working class…d’ya think? So…just give them time (and pitchforks).

That’s what I say about Moore’s film…give it time. And here’s a stock tip: go long on pitchforks.

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BTW here’s a great government website that might not be here after January 20. Better cache it.