Tag Archives: 2017 Reviews

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Named-My Picks

Dennis Hartley

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While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 19 nominees for induction in 2018: Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, The Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, The MC5, The Meters, Moody Blues, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray, and The Zombies. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

Kate Bush – While I fear she has a snowball’s chance in hell to actually get selected (I’ve noticed the Hall tends to snub artists who defy genre), I’m one longtime fan who is happy to see she has at least been nominated. Depending on what day of the week it is, you could file Kate Bush under singer-songwriter, performance artist, progressive rock, experimental, folk, chamber-pop, electronica, et al. By the time she was 16, she already had demos of around 50 compositions, several of which caught the ear of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who shopped them to music execs, helping launch her recording career. Her music comes from a place of sharp intelligence and sublime aesthetic rarely matched (her 4-octave range doesn’t hurt). And she’s been doing this for 40 years…so I say, yes…let her in!

Best 3 albums: Never For Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds of Love

The Cars – It’s not the first Hall of Fame nomination for this iconic Boston band; odds are good that it will finally take.  Their classic 1978 debut album was a breath of fresh air at the time;  the perfect bridge between the stadium rock excess of the mid to late 70s and the burgeoning skinny-tie new-wave scene of the early 80s. They ingeniously mixed  warm, Beatle-y power pop sensibilities with the cool detachment of Kraftwerk-influenced  electronica-and it worked (as you can hear in the aptly-entitled “All Mixed Up” above). They have since built an impressive catalog, so I’d say they are due.

Best 3 albums: The Cars, Candy-O, Heartbeat City

Judas Priest – “Priest! Priest! Priest!” C’mon…let’s put the ROCK back into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering this U.K. outfit has been slashing power chords  since 1969,  and that their popularity has never waned, you can’t say they haven’t proven their mettle (metal?) by now.  Not to mention that they are responsible for one of the best hard rock albums ever made…Sad Wings of Destiny. Great catalog of songs (many of them bonafide rock anthems), ace dual guitarists, and Rob Halford’s otherworldly pipes…I rest my case.

Best 3 albums: Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Screaming for Vengeance

The Moody Blues – Every year, there is at least one nominee that makes me do a spit take (did I get any on you?). “Are you kidding me? You mean they are not already in the Hall of Fame? Seriously?!” if 50 years of consistently top-shelf symphonic rock and chart-topping singles doesn’t make them a shoo-in, I don’t know what does.  Jeez.

Best 3 albums: Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The Zombies – Another classic band whose time for induction is overdue. Founded by keyboardist Rod Argent in 1958 (!), they scored a string of hit singles in the U.K. and the U.S. in the early to mid-60s. Songs like “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season” are imprinted in the neurons of those “of a certain age” (ahem).  Those hits are timeless, but the deep cuts have a lot of substance as well; informed by Argent’s unique jazz-rock chord shapes and Colin Blunstone’s  breathy vocals. Argent and Blunstone still do the odd gig; so let’s give them credit for hanging in there!

Best 3 albums: Begin Here, Odyssey and Oracle, Decca Stereo Anthology

Bang bang, shoot shoot

By Dennis Hartley

(In light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am re-posting this piece from February 16th of this year).

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Oh, boy.  From  The Washington Times:

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

 The previous administration had proposed requiring Social Security to search its records and report people receiving disability benefits or supplemental income payments and who had someone else managing their finances, deeming them “mental defectives” who shouldn’t be able to buy firearms. Republicans said that trampled on Second Amendment rights by casting too wide a net.
                                 

“It results in reporting people to the gun ban list that should not be on that list at all,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the effort to repeal the Obama rule. “It deprives those people [of] their constitutional rights and, in a very important way, violates their constitutional rights without even due process.”

Oh, I see…it’s just those “compassionate conservatives” selflessly looking out for the interests of Americans with disabilities; standing up for their rights. At least when the Second Amendment is in peril. Because, as you know, they’ve always been there for those folks:

Good times!

This development strikes me as particularly odious, coming  as it does hot on the heels of PBS’ February 14 broadcast premiere of Tower, a harrowing documentary recounting the 1966 mass shooting  at the University of Texas.  Over an agonizing hour and a half period, a deranged sniper who had stationed himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower, methodically picked off nearly 50 people-killing 16 and wounding 3 dozen. He still had plenty of ammo left when two Austin policeman and a hastily deputized civilian were able to make their way to the top and take him out.

Last June, in a piece I wrote about the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, I pointed to the 1966 incident as a sad marker for America:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman  perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims  (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness.  And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting  meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding  homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

(sigh) I have to ask again. WTF will it take? BTW, here is what it “took” for President Obama to lobby for the regulation that has just been overturned:

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But thank God the 2nd Amendment got through all this unscathed!

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime?

Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943.

While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg).

While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act.

Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer).

A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

The art of being: R.I.P. Harry Dean Stanton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton died on September 15. Who? You know…the guy who was in the thing. He was 91 years old, but that’s a moot point. He fell out of his crib careworn and world-weary. That is not intended to be a flip observation. He was timeless, and will remain so. Most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; but as soon as you put him in front of a camera, you could not miss the story in his eyes. It was the story of humanity.

He was born in Kentucky in 1926; his mother was a cook and his father a barber and tobacco farmer. He served in WW 2 as a Navy cook (he was on a tank landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa), and after the war cut his teeth as an actor working with the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his screen debut in 1957 in a forgettable western, which nonetheless led to a fairly steady stream of small movie parts and television work. Still, he obviously stood out to casting directors, who started to get him progressively meatier parts from the mid-60s onward. He never stopped working; you may have seen him in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revamp on Showtime, and was quite memorable in HBO’s Big Love.

It didn’t matter whether he played a convict on a chain gang, a 1940s L.A. homicide detective, street corner preacher, repo man, crew member on a space merchant vessel, ranch hand, mysterious drifter, or Molly Ringwald’s dad in a teen comedy…from the moment his character popped on screen, there was something all at once familiar about him.

Of course he was a trained actor; but I’ll be damned if I ever saw him “act”. He simply “was”…and it worked. I don’t think he sweated the small stuff, and that was his secret. Like all the great actors, he just let it happen. That is not to say that he didn’t focus on the work. From accounts I have read, he could be “difficult” with directors; but not to appease his own ego, rather always in service of the character he was playing. He wanted to get it “right”. From my observation, he never failed to. Here are my top 10 film picks:

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, 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. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor performance.

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Rancho Deluxe– This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Great ensemble work from the entire cast, which includes Elizabeth Ashley (her best role), Slim Pickens, Clifton James, and Harry Dean Stanton as a bumbling cow hand. Stanton’s part is relatively minor, but it showcases the fact that he had a talent for understated comedy.

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Farewell, My Lovely– This 1975 entry, one of a relative handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards, is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both films were adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Sylvia Miles. Stanton is memorable as a perpetually pissed off homicide detective.

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Straight Time– Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) delivers one of the finest character studies of the late 70s with this gritty 1978 portrait of a paroled burglar (Dustin Hoffman) trying to keep his nose clean. Unfortunately, his goading parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) is bent on tripping him up. One thing leads to another, and it’s back to a life of crime. Excellent performances abound, from the likes of Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Stanton (as one of Hoffman’s partners-in-crime).

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Wise Blood– One of director John Huston’s finer latter-career films, this 1979 comedy-drama was adapted by Benedict Fitzgerald from a Flannery O’Connor novel. Brad Dourif stars as a young dirt-poor Southerner who is desperate to make his mark on the world. He decides that the quickest shortcut to grab the public’s attention is to become a crusading, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Stanton is simply wonderful here as a veteran street corner proselytizer (and con man) who mentors the young man in the ways of spiritual hustling.

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Alien– Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A great cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and of course, Harry Dean Stanton!

Escape from New York– John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Stanton, who steals all his scenes as “Brain”. Carpenter also composed the theme.

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Repo Man– This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes good use of L.A. locations. The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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Paris, Texas– What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In what is arguably his career-best performance, he plays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

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Pretty in Pink– This may be damning with faint praise, but I have always found this 1986 film to be the most enjoyable and eminently watchable of the otherwise interchangeable slew of John Hughes teen dramedies that inundated theaters in the 1980s. Actually, Hughes did not direct this one (he handed that chore over to Howard Deutch)…but it remains very much a “John Hughes film”.

Molly Ringwald stars as a young woman from the poor side of the tracks who gets wooed by a “preppie” from a well-to-do family (Andrew McCarthy). Their respective peers are very disapproving. Much romantic angst ensues; but lots of laughs as well. At its heart, it’s a sweet story, helped  by excellent performances. Stanton (out of place as he may seem) lends realism to the proceedings as Ringwald’s father; the scenes they share exude genuine warmth.

Game theory: Trophy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 16, 2017)

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I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.

-from Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun                                         In case of accidents, he always took his mom                                                     He’s the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son                              All the children sing  

 -From “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by Lennon & McCartney

I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve fired a gun on less than ten fingers. I have never had a fascination for them, in any shape or form. And as far as hunting goes, I have taken the life of approximately one animal; albeit reluctantly. I think I was 14 or 15, on a trip with my family to visit some friends of my parents, who had a farm in upstate New York. I somehow got roped into joining a hunting party comprised of my dad, my uncle, and the man who owned the farm. The mission was to rid the property of varmints.

Actually, they were woodchucks, which apparently are considered pests in some quarters. Long story short, I ended up bagging one of the critters with a .22 rifle. I’m sorry to report that I did not eat the meat, nor did I keep the hide and horns. What’s that? Oh, right, woodchucks don’t have horns (although I understand that they chuck wood like nobody’s business). That was enough for me. I felt awful. I suppose on one level, it was a classic rite of passage for an all-American boy (you know…killing something with dad).

In a 2015 TIME Ideas op-ed, author Bartle Bull opens with this observation:

The murder of Cecil, the magnificent Zimbabwean lion, is a vivid but shabby illustration of the dilemma posed by the hunter-conservationist. President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this dilemma. No other American President has ever been as close to nature, or loved it more. No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

The cognitive dissonance is not lost on co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, who kick off their provocative documentary Trophy by similarly naming Roosevelt as the poster child for this dichotomy. The fact that Bull uses his T.R. reference as a foundation for what essentially becomes a partisan defense of the “hunter-conservationist” concept, while Schwarz and Clusiau use theirs to nudge viewers to ponder whether there ever was such a thing as a “hunter-conservationist”…demonstrates why this issue is so polarizing.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Trophy, which is not all about the tragedy of Cecil the lion, or the confounding legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (although they are both mentioned). Nor is the film necessarily designed to make you despise smug trophy hunters, or for that matter to roll your eyes at sign-carrying, self-righteous vegans (although you will witness the worst of both “sides”…all straight out of Central Casting).

What you do get is a fairly evenhanded look at the interactive “industries” of big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and in Africa, and the complications that ensue (legal and existential). Despite what you may expect going in, this is not a cut-and dry, black and white, good vs. evil, morality vs. commerce scenario.

Not that it makes the film an easy watch (although it is visually stunning and beautifully constructed). One particular scene has haunted me for days. An elephant is brought down by a trophy hunter. The camera tracks behind the hunters for what seems to be an eternity as they cautiously approach the dying animal. As it lies on its side, struggling to raise its head while taking its final breaths, it begins to emit what can only be described as the most plaintive, primal, bone-chilling wail of surrender to the void that I have ever heard from any creature great or small. If there is ever a demand for unimpeachable proof of sentience in such creatures, this heartbreaking, funereal sequence should be Exhibit “A”.

No matter where you stand on the issue of big game hunting (or “harvesting”, if you prefer), the sad fact remains many magnificent species are on the brink of extinction; and if it takes an occasional deal with the devil (or the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son) to facilitate their survival, does the end justify the means? The film makers may not offer a pat answer, but provide enough deep background to let you be the judge.

Forgotten crimes: Memoir of a Murderer **½ & The Sinner ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 9, 2107)

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You know what they say: watch out for the quiet ones. Consider Byung-su (Kyung-gu Sul), a taciturn, 50-something veterinarian who enjoys a quiet, retiring life with his adult daughter Eun-hee (Seol-Hyun Kim). He is the central character of South Korean director Shin-yeon Won’s psychological crime thriller, Memoir of a Murderer (in theaters now).

The single, 20-something Eun-hee is concerned about dad, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As inevitably occurs in the early stages, Byung-su is becoming forgetful, to the point where he keeps a mini-voice recorder with him so he can dictate reminders to himself. However, Alzheimer’s may be a blessing. There are certain things about his past he would just as soon forget all about-like the “career” he has “retired” from: serial killer.

Eun-hee is blissfully oblivious to her father’s macabre double life, which abruptly ceased 17 years previous, after Byung-su was involved in a serious car wreck. Whether or not the accident literally knocked him back to his senses is not made clear, but he decided then and there to end the killing spree and concentrate on being a loving father to his daughter, who he is raising as a single parent.

First-person flashbacks reveal that Byung-su’s murderous impulses may have been seeded in his childhood; he was frequently beaten senseless by his violently abusive father. Subsequently, when he becomes a serial murderer as a young adult, he targets those who are (to his determination as judge, jury, and executioner) abusers of all stripes. This is his self-justification; like television’s “Dexter” he feels he’s doing society a favor.

At any rate, that was the “old” Byung-su. Now, he wouldn’t harm a fly. Or would he? After several random murders with eerie similarities make local authorities suspect a new serial killer is on the prowl, Byung-su begins to fear that he himself could be the perpetrator (especially when he factors in his constant fuzziness from the Alzheimer’s). As if all of this weren’t enough to send him over the edge, he’s getting a disconcertingly “familiar” vibe from Eun-hee’s mysterious new boyfriend (Kim Nam-gil), a young cop.

Won’s film (adapted by Hwang Jo-yun and Won Shin-yun from Kim Young-ha’s novel A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization) recalls three other crime thrillers: Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979), and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003); the former for its amnesiac, morally ambiguous protagonist, and the latter two for finding the humanity in otherwise repugnant characters.

That is not to say that this film is necessarily in the same class as the aforementioned. The premise is clever, leading man Sul has a brooding presence, and Choi Young-hwan’s atmospheric cinematography sustains a suitably nightmarish mood…but it gets bogged down by jarring tonal shifts; attempts at injecting humor become distracting, and you get a feeling Won wasn’t quite sure how to end his film. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable for dedicated fans of twisty crime thrillers…among whose company I can usually be found.

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Speaking of twisty crime thrillers, if you don’t feel up to schlepping to the multiplex this weekend to overspend on a bucket of popcorn, you might have a summer TV sleeper  in your on-demand queue, begging for a “catch-up” binge-watch. It’s USA Network’s limited series The Sinner, currently 6 installments into its 8-episode run.

Starring Jessica Biel (who also serves as an executive producer), it’s a deliriously lurid Zalman King-meets-Stephen King psychological mystery thriller (with a dash of Hitchcock tossed in for giggles). Here, Biel is the “quiet one” you need to watch out for.

They certainly know how to grab your attention in the series opener. Hot young mom Cora (Biel), her handsome hubby (Christopher Abbott, who you may recognize from HBO’s Girls) and their toddler son are enjoying a lovely sunny day at a crowded beach, when Cora espies a nearby group of young singles who are cranking the tunes and having a grand old time. When Cora suddenly leaps up without a word, purposely strides into their midst, and proceeds to brutally stab one of the young men to death, no one is more surprised than she. Turns out this ain’t exactly a typical day at the beach after all.

With hundreds of witnesses to this shocking and grisly crime (committed in broad daylight), it seems an open-and-shut case. But that would be too easy (and besides, 7 episodes still remain). Cora isn’t helping her own case by essentially shrugging and saying “dunno” every time someone asks her the obvious question. While the D.A., police, and the public are already chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!”…there is one soul intrigued enough by the fact that Cora has no previous criminal record to dive into her psyche and discover the trigger for this seemingly inexplicable act of violence.

He is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, in an oddly mannered performance that grows on you). Socially-challenged Harry is a hot mess; he is on the outs with his wife, pursuing a passionless affair with a dominatrix,and  fancies himself as a world-class arborist (he seems to doing a bit of a reprise of the eccentric detective character he played in Jake Kasdan’s 1998 mystery dramedy, The Zero Effect).

Not unlike the protagonist in Memoir of a Murderer, Cora gives us a glimpse, via first-person flashbacks, of a twisted family upbringing; including a perennially moribund, voyeuristic young sister (obsessed with pushing Cora to lose her virginity) and a creepy, bible-thumping mother (straight out of Carrie) who goes out of her way to make Cora feel that any of her misbehavior (real or imagined) is somehow responsible for fueling her sister’s chronic illness.

There are also elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie; particularly in the dynamics that develop between Cora and Harry as they team up to unlock the repressed memories that are feeding her P.T.S.D. symptoms. Toss in some Red Shoe Diaries-worthy soft-core titillation, and you’ve got yourself some must-see TV. Pass the popcorn.

Life during wartime: This Corner of the World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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Is everybody safe?
Has everybody got a place to hide?
Is everybody warm inside?

Hear them singing
All the women of Bombay
Standing with the Nagasaki housewives in doorways
In eruptions and destructions on Doomsday

– from “The Yard Went on Forever” (lyrics by Jimmy Webb)

This past August 11, just several days after two sobering anniversaries-the nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, a contemplative anime drama called In This Corner of the World made its U.S. debut; easy to overlook amid the Emoji, Spider-Man and Atomic Blonde mayhem.

Co-written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the film (adapted from writer-illustrator Fumiyo Kono’s eponymous manga) is a snapshot of everyday Japanese life from the 1930s through the 1940s, through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu (voiced by Rena Nonen). Katabuchi uses flashback and flash-forward to tell Suzu’s story. A dreamer with a flair for art, Suzu was raised in the seaside village of Eba (a sector of Hiroshima City). We first meet her at age 18 (a year before the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

Suzu learns from her parents that a young man named Shusaku (voiced by Yoshimasa Hosoya) is on his way from Kure (a nearby port city with a large naval base) to ask for her hand in marriage. The respectful and low-key Shusaku, who has a civilian job with the navy, once had a chance encounter with Suzu when they were both children (although she doesn’t remember). Obviously, she made more of an impression on him than the other way around; still, Suzu is intrigued and longs for a change of scenery. She accepts his proposal and accompanies her husband to Kure, where she moves in with his family.

Over the next year of her life, the harsh realities of the war begin to creep ever closer to home for Suzu and her family; especially once Allied bombers begin to target the nearby naval base. Suzu is still living in Kure when nearby Hiroshima befalls its inevitable fate on August 6, 1945. Separated by a mountain, Kure is out of the blast zone, but residents are witness to the blinding flash, the horrifying mushroom cloud, and fleeing victims.

What separates this film from previous anime dramas that beg comparison (e.g. Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies) is painstaking attention to historical detail regarding not only daily lives of Japanese civilians before, during and after the war (the aforementioned films focused almost solely on the immediate horrors of destruction and suffering), but in recreating the look and feel of the principal locations where the story takes place (the production staff did exhaustive research on pre-war Hiroshima’s architecture and layout, using archival photos and eyewitness recollections from surviving pre-war residents).

The animation is outstanding; there are several set pieces that are truly inspired, particularly a sequence that finds Suzu caught out in the open on the verdant hills overlooking the ocean during a U.S. aircraft strafing attack. Frozen in a strange state between fear and wonder, Suzu becomes oddly entranced by the exploding puffballs of flak in the clear blue sky around her. As the perspective subtly switches to Suzu’s POV, you realize that you are suddenly watching the frightful mayhem though an artist’s eye; the sky becomes a vast canvas, and the flak akin to Jackson Pollack shooting paintballs.

The only bone I have to pick is a bit of narrative confusion here and there, caused not so much by the vacillation between flashback and flash-forward sequences, but the occasional flights of fancy (or perchance, dreaming?) that Suzu has (a little pilfering from The Wizard of Oz, if you catch my drift). But then again, that could be a personal problem; choosing to watch a subtitled version can distract you from crucial visual cues (at the theater where I saw the film, they offered both subtitled and dubbed showings).

Those minor quibbles aside, this is an involving humanistic study (reminiscent of the quietly observant dramas of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu), with just the right balance of drama and humor.

Like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2014 anime The Wind Rises, Katabuchi’s film may delicately side-step any avenues that potentially lead to addressing thornier issues like collective guilt or complicity by fealty to the emperor; but considering that most of the characters are non-combatants, In This Corner of the World is closer in spirit to those great films that remind us that as long as we wage wars, there will always be innocents who get caught in the crossfire.

It is the duty of survivors, as well as subsequent generations, to dedicate themselves to build a world where the need to wreak such horrors upon one another becomes, once and for all, unequivocally abhorrent to all.

Accept the obvious: R.I.P. Dick Gregory

By Dennis Hartley

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“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious.”

-Dick Gregory

Man, did Dick Gregory pick a bad weekend to go. With the passing of Jerry Lewis and eclipse mania building to a fever pitch, his death in Washington D.C. this past Saturday earned him but a few perfunctory thirty second obits on network and cable newscasts.

Truth be told, Gregory was not so much a “comedian” who went out of his way to make you laugh as he was a righteous, erudite truth teller, who also happened to be very funny.  He was a trickster of a sort;  he would lower your guard with a perfect zinger, then seconds later he would raise your consciousness with a sharp social insight.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’  I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ “

-Dick Gregory

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When it came to his political activism, he didn’t just talk the talk:

[From The Los Angeles Times]

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

Not exactly your everday “ha-ha funny” type of clown, was he?

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His activism never stopped. From today’s Democracy Now tribute (I’d recommend watching the entire tribute-its quite moving)…

Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, “We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists.” Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism.

[…]

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action to — approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested. Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism.

The last sentence above  explains in part (sadly) why, despite his long career, you’ll find virtually no Dick Gregory performance clips on YouTube. That’s because he has essentially been blacklisted for years; there are very few archived TV or club appearances that exist.

Here’s a little taste of his early standup days:

Here’s a rare latter-day television appearance, on Arsenio in 2014:

There’s a lot of truth-telling going on in that interview. Interesting to note that Arsenio Hall’s “revival” run (that started in 2013)  was cancelled soon after (file under “Things That Make You Go: ‘Hmm.'”)

“To me, seeing a great comedian is a bit like watching a musician or a poet.”

-Dick Gregory

Accept the obvious:  America’s conscience has lost its Poet Laureate. R.I.P.

The day the clowns cried: R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

By Dennis Hartley

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“Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”  – Jerry Lewis, commenting on his film oeuvre.

Yes, I used “Jerry Lewis” and “oeuvre” in the same sentence. “Ouevre” is a fancy French word that means “Hey, LAAY-DEE!”

I’m kidding. Mirriam-Webster defines  it as “…a substantial body of work constituting the life work of a writer, an artist, or a composer.”

Jerry Lewis, who died this morning in Las Vegas, certainly left behind a substantial body of work.  From 1949 to 2016, he acted in over 50 films; out of those he directed 23, and wrote 20 of them. And, as Lewis himself observed, some were very funny, others not so much.

Some of Lewis’ early, funnier movies include 1952’s The Stooge, 1955’s Artists and Models, 1959’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (those three co-starring his decade-long stage and screen comedy partner Dean Martin),  The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963),  and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Martin Scorsese gave Lewis a second wind when he offered him a juicy part in his brilliant 1982 show biz satire The King of Comedy (highly recommended). It not only introduced Lewis to a new generation of fans, but allowed him to demonstrate that he had chops as a dramatic actor (when he wasn’t pulling faces, that is). Two more post-Scorsese Lewis performances worth a rental are Emir Kusturica’s 1993 off-the-wall sleeper Arizona Dream, and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy Funny Bones.

While he had continued writing, directing and starring in films through the early 70s, Lewis floundered at the box office as his particular brand of shtick went out of vogue in Hollywood. “Hollywood” is the key word here; as everyone and their grandmother knows, it was the undying admiration by the French that ultimately kept Lewis’ rep as a film maker afloat during his wilderness years (they gave him the Legion of Honor award in 1983).

Despite all the joking and ridicule spawned by France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis, they were on to something. He was, by definition, an auteur,  having written, directed and starred in so many films. A lot of people are not aware that he was also an innovator. He essentially invented the “video tap”, a signal-splitting device that attaches to a movie camera and allows the director to share the  camera operator’s view in real time, via a separate video monitor.

I am aware that Lewis’ self-appraisal as being either “very funny or awful” as an artist could apply on occasion to his off-stage life. He didn’t always think before he spoke. That noted, stepping back to look at the big picture, this was a human being who devoted well over 70 years of his long and productive life to making people laugh.

And that’s a good thing. Going up?