Tag Archives: 2018 Reviews

Bizarre love triangle: Burning (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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The Great Gatsby meets The Talented Mr. Ripley at the corner of William Faulkner and Brett Easton Ellis in director Lee Chang-dong’s leisurely-paced mystery-thriller Burning. I’m telling you it’s “leisurely-paced” now, because with a time investment of 2 hours, 28 minutes, I’d hazard to guess it’s the type of news you’d prefer that I’d share right away.

The story centers on an insular, socially isolated young man named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) who has become sole caretaker of his father’s modest farm near the North Korean border while dad languishes in the court system (he’s on trial for some unspecified malfeasance).

One day, Jongsu is sleep-walking through his part-time delivery gig in nearby Seoul, when he is unexpectedly jostled by a vivacious and flirty young woman named Haemi (Jong-seo Joo) who claims to have been a childhood schoolmate. It’s clear the flustered Jongsu initially doesn’t remember her; it’s also painfully obvious he’s unaccustomed to having even a vague possibility of romantic involvement fall in his lap, so he plays along.

Before he knows it, Haemi has ingratiated herself into his life; Jongsu walks around with a half-dazed expression like he can’t quite believe his dumb luck, especially after one glorious (if initially fumbling and awkward) night of amour. But then, just as quickly, the flighty Haemi announces she is travelling to Africa for a soul-searching sabbatical (oh, and would he mind checking in on her apartment and feeding her cat while she is away?). Of course, he doesn’t mind; he’s one of those hapless pushover-types that anyone who’s been to two world’s fairs and a film festival will instantly recognize as a classic noir sap.

Cue an interlude reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion; wherein Jongsu falls into a listless torpor holding vigil in Haemi’s dark and claustrophobic apartment, dividing his time between feeding a cat that he can never find and masturbating joylessly to a photo of Haemi as he faces a small window that affords a smudged view of the tip of the Namsan Seoul Tower (insert Freudian subtext here). As days run into (weeks? Months?) Jongsu begins to question whether the cat even exists. Scratch that; was Haemi ever there? The viewer begins to wonder as well, especially since we’re told Jongsu is an aspiring writer.

Jongsu brightens when he gets a call from Haemi, back from her sojourn and wanting to meet up with him for lunch. However, his heart sinks when he sees she’s brought “a friend” she met in Africa, a fellow Korean traveler named Ben (Steven Yuen). Ben is a mysterious, urbane trustafarian. Haemi, ebullient as ever, is confident the trio will be thick as thieves in no time. Jongsu, not so much. Initially seeing Ben as a possible sexual rival, Jongsu eyes him suspiciously, but then inexorably succumbs to his inherent charm.

It’s difficult to further discuss the narrative without risking spoilers, so suffice it to say that many twists ensue. Unfortunately, the twists that ensue are nothing that haven’t previously ensued in scores of other mystery-thrillers (and presented with more brevity).

The director and Jung-mi Oh co-adapted their screenplay from a short story by Haruki Murakami called “Barn Burning” (also the name of a short story by William Faulkner; at one point in the film, Jongsu tells Ben that Faulkner is his favorite writer). Interestingly, in a transcribed interview with the director conducted by co-screenwriter Oh that was included in the press kit, Lee says “When you first recommended to me this short story, I was a bit taken aback. Because the story felt mysterious, but nothing really happens in it.”

Judging by that criteria, I’d have to say Lee’s film is, if nothing else, a faithful adaptation.

Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2018)

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As we are but several days away from Thanksgiving, that most venerable of American holidays which enables families to come together once a year to count their blessings, stuff their faces, and endeavor mightily to not bring politics into the conversation, I thought I might mosey on over to the movie pantry and hand-select my top 10 food films:

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Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and that’s Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by two equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017).

Tom Jones– Hah…you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you? Nobody forgets this scene:

Special guest post: A very, very, very fine house

By Dwight Slade

Note: Dwight Slade is a Portland-based comic with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. Much has been written about comedians on the road; many such tales are entertaining,  yet tend to be (shall we say) less than “family-friendly”.  Dwight shared an uplifting “road story” on his Facebook page this week that recounts two journeys; a bittersweet memoir about the miles already traveled, and a hopeful peek at what lies around the next bend.  With his permission, I am re-publishing Dwight’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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In 1983, Bill Hicks and I were sharing a studio apartment in Burbank, CA. The 80’s comedy boom was beginning, and Bill decided to head back to Houston. I was struggling with the LA open mike scene. Sometimes waiting hours to perform 3 minutes at the Westwood Comedy Store or at a brand new, tiny club on Sunset named The Laugh Factory.

My friend Bill Weber called me and said I should come to Portland for the summer. He was going to house sit for 6 weeks. I could stay with him. What a great opportunity…I could do open mikes in Portland while trashing the house of a complete stranger.

When I got to Portland I found a charming, rainy city with a ton of open mikes. I remember taking the TriMet bus over the brown, rusty Hawthorne bridge that crosses the Willamette river and emerges into downtown. I thought to myself, “I can handle this city. Why should I go back to LA and be frustrated and unknown, when I can be frustrated and unknown in Portland?”

I plunged into the open mike scene and found a loving and creative group who had an absolutely unique combination of unbridled support and gritty competition. Dave Anderson, Mike “Boats” Johnson, JP Linde, Dan Deprez, Dawn Greene, Susan Rice, Art Krug and Robert Jenkins. We all found a link to what our lives would soon be about.

Before long we had all graduated to local headliners fueled by a crazy group of fans who loved this brand-new irreverent form of stand up. This was before Evening at the Improv and chain comedy clubs.

I made Portland my home, but spent most of the time on the road.
Cutting my teeth as a middle act all over the US.  Mostly in Nebraska, however. All while raising two wonderful children.

This was so long ago that my first CD, “Weird State,” was printed on cassette.

In 1998, Dave Anderson and I found an opportunity to do talk radio in Portland. I stopped doing stand-up as Dave and I tried to make our mark in talk radio. This was in 2000. Which featured the most contentious election in history. In an awesome stroke of irony, the day the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, KXL decided to let us go.

I was suddenly without a job and hadn’t performed stand up in a year. I had no choice than to throw myself back into stand up. Maybe that Renton gig wasn’t so bad.

Within a year I had experienced my most creative period. Winding up with a development deal with the company who created Gilmore Girls. I did road work, I traveled to Edinburgh to do the Fringe Festival, went to Afghanistan to entertain troops (US Troops).

All from a small house in NE Portland. This was my home. Where I recharged and healed through auditions, marriages, the kid’s saxophone and flute lessons.

I thought I would live here forever.

I’ve discovered however that I need to rattle my cage every now and then. And there is no better rattling than to move to Boise, Idaho.
Since Whitney accepted her new job with the Idaho Food Bank and we decided to move, I have seen how much the city of Portland has given me. How much it has changed me. My kids have grown into wonderful human beings that know not to laugh at fart jokes in movies; a wonderful marriage and a 17-year-old cat.

That’s why we packed 18 years of accumulated crap that would challenge the worst of hoarders and have hustled over the mountains to Boise, Idaho.

This has entailed a lot of tearing of roots. This was the house where I dealt with my Dad and Mom’s illness; my two brothers’ deaths, Dave, Mike and Bill Hicks.

All from this pretty blue house in NE Portland.

I’m not going far. But wanted everyone to know that I will carry you, and Portland, with me no matter where life’s adventures takes me.

In the lap of the gods: Bohemian Rhapsody (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2018)

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One of my favorite scenes in the BBC-TV series I Claudius takes place in a library, where aspiring historian Claudius encounters two scholars whom he admires. When Claudius diplomatically says they are the “two greatest” historians, it gets awkward fast:

(excerpted from the teleplay by Jack Pulman)

Pollio: Well, there can’t be two greatest. That’s just shilly-shallying, apart from being an abuse of the Roman tongue. So, you will have to choose. Which one of us would you rather read?

 Livy: Oh come Pollio, that’s not fair.

 Pollio: Nonsense. The lad’s obviously intelligent. So, speak up, boy. Which of us would you rather read?

 Claudius: Well, it d-d-depends, sir.

 Pollio: Ah, intelligent, but cowardly.

 Claudius: No. I mean, it depends on what I’m reading for. For b-beauty of language I would read L-Livy, and for interpretation of fact I would read P-P-Pollio.

 Livy: [indignantly] Now you please neither of us and that’s always a mistake!

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated Bohemian Rhapsody, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kracken of pedantic angst. So I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

In the remote case you are unaware, the film dramatizes the story of Queen, one of the most successful rock acts of all time. The film’s title is taken from one of their most recognizable songs, guaranteed to be playing soon on your local classic rock FM station (tune in-it will play within an hour or so, or it will be sampled in a station sweeper mandated by law to include “Money” by Pink Floyd and “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin).

You are likely aware that there has been a kerfuffle or two regarding this film. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury but walked out over creative differences with producers. Credited director Singer was booted off the project by the studio while it was still in production (he was replaced by uncredited Dexter Fletcher). Then there was social media outcry in wake of the teaser trailer, which some members of the LBGTQ community felt “straight-washed” Mercury’s sexual orientation.

Talk about performance pressure.

The film opens with a Scorsese-style tracking shot following Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he energetically works his way from backstage to enter the mainstage at London’s Wembley Stadium where an excited throng of humanity awaits. It’s July of 1985, and Queen is about to deliver their now-legendary performance as part of Bob Geldof’s massive Live-Aid benefit concert to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.

Adhering to the Golden Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll Biopics, this is but a framing device-and a cue to abruptly cut away from this moment of triumph to embark on a 2-hour flashback showing How We Got Here (spoiler alert-the time loop eventually reconnects with 1985).

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay proceeds from there in a fairly standard by-the-numbers fashion, beginning in early ‘70s London, which is when and where baggage handler, rock superfan and later-to-be-christened “Freddie Mercury” (née Farrokh Bulsara) joins his favorite band Smile after their bassist/lead vocalist quits. With Farrokh, new bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzelo), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) now in place, Smile is all set to morph into the classic Queen lineup.

Theirs was not an overnight success; it wasn’t until 1973 that they found themselves in a position to record their first proper album. The film depicts the band scrambling to find their voice in these first forays in the recording studio; working out the basic rudiments of what would eventually become the band’s signature formula of proggy neo-classical melodies meets heavy metal riffing, topped off by intricate harmony vocal arrangements.

The band’s 1974 sophomore album Queen II and its follow-up Sheer Heart Attack (same year!) were actually more significant in terms of sales and career-building, but the filmmakers curiously skip over this crucial transition period of substantive creative progression and jump into the sessions for 1975’s international hit A Night at the Opera.

It’s in these scenes, where the band becomes ensconced in the studios that the film really came alive for me; then again, I’m a sucker for fly-on-the-wall peeks at creative process.

Unfortunately, the film falls flat whenever it takes soap-opera excursions into Freddie Mercury’s personal life. I don’t fault the actors; Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker each give it their best shot as Mercury’s longtime girlfriend Mary Austin and male lover Jim Hutton, respectively and Malek’s completely committed portrayal never falters (although I was initially distracted by his uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger early in the film). In case you were wondering, they do address his sexuality (as well as the AIDS that took him from us; although they inexplicably alter the timeline as to when he was diagnosed).

To millions of fans, Queen “was” Freddie Mercury; and indeed, he was the embodiment of a Rock Star-a flamboyant, dynamic, iconoclastic front man with fabulous pipes and charisma to spare. I get that. Yet Mercury was one-quarter of a unit where the others brought their own monster musicianship, angelic harmonies and songwriting skills to the table.

When I was a 17-year-old longhair stoner rocking out to “Liar”, “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and “Keep Yourself Alive” while dancing around my room wearing comically over-sized Koss headphones, I don’t recall giving one infinitesimal fuck whether the singer was gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. I just dug the music.

Bottom line, if you go in expecting a Freddie Mercury biopic replete with all the juicy details of his love life and recreations of his legendary bacchanals, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting a Queen biopic that neatly distills the essence of the band and its music, and you’re not overly bothered by fudging on the facts for the sake of some dramatic license, I think you will come out of the theater with Bic lighter held aloft.

# # #

Special note: The showing of Bohemian Rhapsody that I attended was presented in a format hitherto unknown to me called “Screen X”. While I did balk at the $18 price tag (for a goddam matinee?!) I figured it was my duty to check out this newfangled technology. Screen X requires a three-screen configuration. The center is your standard movie screen image, matted the same as any theater, cable or home video presentation. Additional footage is projected on the left and right wall panels immediately adjacent. This affords what is billed as a “270-degree” field of view (what am I…a fuckin’ owl?).

These side images are composed, filmed, and edited at the same time as the standard theatrical material; the intended effect is to fill your peripheral vision. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, only “selected scenes” were given the full effect (mostly used for the live concert scenes). It’s being compared to IMAX, but I found it reminiscent of Cinerama (I’m showing my age). Truth be told, it didn’t enhance my movie experience. I found it distracting. Meh. Now, if they could figure a way to add quadrophonic sound…

Tough call: The Guilty (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27th, 2018)

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Nothing can be more frightening than your own imagination, especially when it comes to horror movies. Generally, a horror movie that instills fear and dread without “showing” us anything tangibly horrific can be designated as a “psychological thriller”. And the best psychological thrillers, from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Hitchcock’s Marnie to more modern fare like Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Christopher Nolan’s Memento aim to unsettle us further by presenting a protagonist whose grip on reality appears to unravel as we helplessly observe. Gustav Möller’s The Guilty is one such film.

Essentially a chamber piece set in a police station call center, The Guilty is a “one night in the life of…” character study of a Danish cop (Jakob Cedergren) who has been busted down to emergency dispatcher. Demonstratively glum about pulling administrative duties, the tightly wound officer resigns himself to another dull shift manning the phones.

However, if he was hoping for something exciting to break the monotony, he’s about to fulfill the old adage “be careful what you wish for” once he takes a call from a frantic woman who has been kidnapped. Before he gets enough details to pinpoint her location, she hangs up. As he’s no longer authorized to respond in person, he resolves to redeem himself with his superiors by MacGyvering a way to save her as he races a ticking clock.

Considering the “action” is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, Möller and his star perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies. Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and completely bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told.

Spirits in the night: John Carpenter’s The Fog [re-release] (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27th, 2018)

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Just in time for Halloween, a 4K restoration of John Carpenter’s 1980 chiller The Fog debuts this weekend in select cities. Carpenter’s follow-up to his surprise 1978 low-budget horror hit Halloween didn’t conjure up quite the same degree of enthusiasm from film-goers and critics, but still did respectable box office and has become a cult favorite.

Set in the sleepy hamlet of Antonio Bay on the California coast, the film opens with a crusty old salt (the great John Houseman) holding court around a campfire scaring the bejesus out of children with a local legend about a mysterious 19th-Century shipwreck on nearby rocks. This happens to be the eve of the 100th anniversary of the incident; the codger hints at portents of imminent phantasmagorical vengeance. ‘Night, kids-sleep tight! Enter a winsome, free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) who catches a ride into Antonio Bay with one of the locals (Tom Atkins), just in time to see a dense, eerily glowing fog roll into town at the stroke of midnight (rarely a good sign). Mayhem ensues.

As is the case in most of Carpenter’s oeuvre, narrative takes a back seat to suspense and atmosphere. In another Carpenter trademark (and ongoing nod to one of his Hollywood heroes Howard Hawks), there’s more character development than you find in contemporary horror fare, which tends to emphasize shock and gore. The film isn’t gore-free, but (cleverly) it’s more aurally than visually graphic; which showcases the craft of the Foley artists and sound engineers (as much of the action literally takes place in a fog).

It’s not Carpenter’s crown jewel (which for me is Escape from New York), but it gave me a few jumps and a guilty twinge of 80s nostalgia. The cast is game, especially 80s scream queen (and Mrs. Carpenter at the time) Adrienne Barbeau as a late-night radio DJ who broadcasts from an old lighthouse. I also enjoyed watching the Hollywood royalty on board (Houseman, Curtis’ mom Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook) doing their best to lend gravitas to the proceedings (which they must have had a tough time taking too seriously).

Due to technical limitations, the preview copy I watched was not in true 4K format, but it was the newly restored version, which highlights striking work by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, et.al.) and is a noticeable upgrade over murky, faded prints that I’ve seen circulating on cable and home video for years. I imagine that on the big screen, you can nearly make out what’s lurking in the mist now…

The sundown kid: The Old Man and the Gun (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2018)

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I have no idea what kind of box office The Old Man and the Gun will do its opening weekend, but if my unscientific head count of approximately 10 fellow patrons at the Friday matinee I attended is any indicator, I’d say Venom is in scant danger of usurpation.

Not that you asked, but there were more indicators of lowered expectations. For one, I noted I was the youngest person in the auditorium (I’m 62). Granted, the star of the film just blew out 82 candles this summer. And of course, a film with “old man” in the title is obviously not targeting a young demographic. It’s no secret Hollywood is all about the youth audience. This may be why the film’s leading man Robert Redford has intuited it’s better to burn out than to fade away; insisting that this role is his “farewell” performance.

This informs the elegiac tone throughout writer-director David Lowery’s leisurely-paced character study, based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker (Redford). Tucker was a slippery devil; during his “career” he escaped from prison “18 times successfully, 12 times unsuccessfully” (his words). Like Redford himself, Tucker pursued his chosen profession well into his golden years, earning a reputation as a “gentleman bandit” (he committed armed robberies, but was courteous to all his victims).

Truth be told, Tucker’s relatively benign bio (well, for a felon) doesn’t have the inherent makings of a riveting crime thriller; but luckily Lowery is smart enough to know that. This is mostly about Bob Redford playing…well, Bob Redford. For one last time. So Lowery doesn’t go for film school flash; utilizing mostly close-ups and two shots, he lets his camera linger on his star, while he exudes that effortless Redford charm and charisma. Both the subject matter and Redford’s naturalistic, low-key portrayal recalls Phillip Borsos’ wonderful 1982 sleeper The Grey Fox, which starred Richard Farnsworth as turn-of-the-century “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner (which is also based on a true story).

Redford is supported by some ace players. Danny Glover and Tom Waits play Tucker’s partners-in-crime (who were dubbed “The Over-the-Hill Gang” by law enforcement). Waits’ character has a great monolog explaining why he hates Christmas that makes you wish he’d been given some more screen time. Sissy Spacek is a welcome presence as a widow Tucker romances (I swear she gets more radiant as she ages). Casey Affleck is effective as a rumpled police detective who plays cat and mouse with Tucker for a spell.

While this is may not be the most memorable film Redford has done over a long, illustrious career, there are worse ways to go. And Bob? We’ll keep the light on for you.

Don’t look down: Free Solo (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2018)

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In my 2011 review of the film Drive, I wrote:

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. […] Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood.

It seemed inevitable that at some point in E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary Free Solo, it would be revealed that its “star”, free-soloist climber Alex Honnold, lives by such a code.

“For [my girlfriend] the point of life is like, happiness,” the soft-spoken, seemingly unflappable Honnold confides at one juncture, “To be with people that make you feel fulfilled; to have a good time. For me, it’s all about performance. Anybody can be happy and cozy. […] Nobody achieves anything great because they are happy and cozy. It’s about being a warrior. It doesn’t matter about the cause, necessarily. This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence. You face your fear, because your goal demands it. That is the goddamned warrior spirit. I think the free-soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture; where you give something 100% focus, because your life depends on it.”

I’m taking his word for it. When it comes to heights…I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

It’s not that the Spock-like Honnold never experiences fear; he just processes it differently from most humans. Literally. In one scene, a bemused Honnold gets a brain MRI. The results? “You have no activation in your amygdala,” the neurologist marvels, “Things that are typically stimulating for the rest of us just aren’t doing it for you.” Hmm.

Honnold (now 33) dropped out of UC Berkeley at 19, scrapping his original plan to study engineering so he could free-climb full time. He’s become a rock star in the climbing world over the years, striving to outdo himself with each ascent. In June of 2017 Honnold went for his ultimate personal best by aiming to be the first person to do a free solo ascent of the 3,200-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Vasarhelyi re-teamed with her husband, photographer/mountaineer Jimmy Chin (the couple co-directed the 2014 film Meru) to document Honnold’s meticulous preparation and the attempt itself.

The deliberate pacing of the film’s first two thirds, which gives only fitful peeks at what makes the taciturn, borderline hermetic Honnold tick, belies the genuine excitement of the final third, which rewards the viewer’s patience in spades. There are glimpses at his personal life with his devoted girlfriend, who seems to have resigned herself to accepting his eccentricities as par for the course. Well, you know what they say- “whatever works”.

You may already know whether Honnold achieved his goal; I had no clue before watching the film (I haven’t gone out of my way to follow the world of free climbing). I also purposely did not Google his name beforehand, because I figured it would ratchet up the suspense. Boy, did it ever-especially in the film’s climactic climbing sequence, which was the most harrowing, white-knuckled, yet ultimately exhilarating and life-affirming 20 minutes I’ve experienced at the movies in ages (I had a lot of activation in my amygdala).

The photography is stunning (as you would expect from a National Geographic film…they do have a rep to uphold), and the editing in that final sequence is Oscar-worthy. I watched my preview copy on a 40-inch flat screen; but I easily visualize this film as a spectacular big-screen experience. Granted, it will likely end up airing on Nat Geo Channel (with 153 commercials) but go see it at a theater if you get the opportunity.

My 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee picks

By Dennis Hartley

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees for 2019, which  must be weeded down to 5 for the next induction.  Once again, I will dutifully fulfill my mission as an alleged pop culture critic and argue for my 5 picks (while hopefully not enraging fans of the remaining 10). Just remember kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. Relax.

The Hall’s nominees are:  Def Leppard, Devo, Janet Jackson, John Prine, Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, MC5, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Roxy Music, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, The Cure, The Zombies (who I already endorsed last year) and Todd Rundgren. So here’s who I feel should be in the clique…and why:

Devo – Yes, that  retro-futurist band with two Bobs and two sets of brothers who made vaguely unsettling videos you could dance to…they must be inducted immediately. They emerged straight outta Akron in 1973, and they were…different.  It took them a spell to find an audience, as they initially leaned more toward arch performance art than conventional musicality. Yet they turned out to be quite musical; and with benefit of hindsight, unarguably visionary.

Best 3 albums:  Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978),  Freedom of Choice (1980), and New Traditionalists (1981).

Kraftwerk – In terms of innovation and lasting influence, this German “krautrock” outfit (founded 1970) holds the most import of my 5 selections. While not necessarily the first band to embrace electronica, they were among the first to seamlessly forge the technology with pop sensibilities. Eschewing  traditional guitar-bass-drum backup for synths, vocoders, and drum machines, Kraftwerk upped the ante with  self-consciously detached, metronomic vocals that caused many to snicker and dismiss the band as a novelty act.  They’re not laughing now, as Kraftwerk’s influences continue to flourish in rock, hip-hop and club music.

Best 3 albums:  Autobahn (1974), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and Computer World (1981).

MC5 – Granted, they may not be as musically innovative as others who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but if you consider “attitude” a key component of rock and roll,  these Detroit-based rockers had it in spades. Call it what you will, proto-punk, garage, psych…they were loud, fast, and aggressive long before it was fashionable. In fact, they scared the living shit out of the mellow peace love and dope crowd at the time. Perhaps most notably, they were boldly outspoken and overtly political (which got them into a lot of trouble during the Nixon years), paving the way for activist bands like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, System of a Down, and Green Day. This is the fourth time they have been nominated…if there has ever been a time to kick out the jams, it’s NOW, motherfuckers!

Best 3 albums: Kick Out the Jams (1969), Back in the USA (1970), and High Time (1971).

Roxy Music – This English outfit (founded in 1970) had very strange optics for its time. They looked like a hastily assembled jam band comprised of space rockers, 50s greasers, hippie stoners, and goths, fronted by a stylishly continental 30s crooner. But the music they made together was magic. It also defied categorization and begged a question; do we file it under glam, prog, pop or art-rock? The answer is “yes”.  They were a huge influence on art punk and new wave, and even their earliest music still sounds freshly original. Let ’em in!

Best 3 albums: Roxy Music (1972), Siren (1975), and Avalon (1982).

Todd Rundgren – It’s shocking to me that the Hall has waited this long to nominate Rundgren, who’s been in the biz for over 50 years (and is still going strong).  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist,  and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer. Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing  pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Best 3 albums: Something/Anything? (1972), Todd (1974) and Faithful (1976).

Here come the nice: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2018)

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Oh, Mr. Rogers, you sly son-of-a-gun. As it turns out, you get to have the last laugh, even though you were not alive to defend yourself. From a 2007 Wall Street Journal piece:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.

“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

[…] Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:

“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”

Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”

And of course, it’s no secret that the Fox news crowd has been gleefully vilifying the beloved children’s television host for quite some time now; holding him accountable as a chief enabler of the “participation trophy” culture they so vociferously mock and despise.

But here’s the funny thing. Several of the more interesting tidbits I picked up about Fred Rogers in Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (currently available on PPV) were: (1) He was a lifelong registered Republican, (2) He studied to be a minister, and (3) He came from a well-moneyed family. I wonder if his fire-breathing conservative critics were aware this radical hippie commie cuck-creator was one of them!

In his affable portrait of this publicly sweet, gentle, compassionate man, Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead). That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. It goes without saying that he was an unusual and unique individual.

The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. Neville demonstrates how Rogers sparked children’s imaginations with the pleasant escapism of “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, while gently schooling them about some of life’s unfortunate realities. Right out of the gate, Rogers intuited how to address the most pervasive fears and uncertainties stoked by current events in a way that (literally) a child could understand and process (a clip showing how Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was handled is poignant beyond words).

If anything lurked beneath Rogers’ genteel countenance, it was his surprisingly steely resolve when it came to certain matters-and you could file these under “eccentricities”. For example, there was the significance of “143” in Rogers’ personal numerology. He used that number as shorthand for “I love you” (“I” is 1 letter, “love” is 4 letters, and “you” is 3 letters). “143” was also the consistent weight he strove to maintain all his adult life; helped by diligently swimming the equivalent of 1 mile in the pool nearly every day.

That same resolve is evidenced in an extraordinary bit of footage I’d never previously seen. The Republican Nixon administration (not unlike the current one) devoted a good portion of its first year vindictively hamstringing various achievements by the previous Democratic president. Lyndon Johnson’s Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created and earmarked funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was an early target.

When Congressional hearings commenced in 1969 to address the White House’s requested 50% budget cuts for CPB, Rogers appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to speak on behalf of Public Television. Armed with little more than a few notes, some song lyrics, and his unique brand of friendly persuasion, you watch in amazement as Rogers turns the (initially) comically gruff and hostile committee chairman into a puddle of mush in just under 7 minutes, prompting the senator to chuckle and quip “Looks like you’ve just earned 20 million dollars.” Straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

Granted, there is virtually nothing to shock or surprise most viewers, especially if you are one of Fred Rogers’ “kids” who spent your formative years riding Trolley Trolley (and you “entitled” so-and-sos know who you are). And yes, expect the waterworks, especially if you’re sentimental. That said, anybody with a heart should go in with a box of Kleenex on standby. I was 12 in 1968, so I was already too hip for the room back in the day…but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t peeling onions every 10 minutes or so while watching this film.

With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. There is so much vitriol, spitefulness, division, and ill will floating on the wind that it’s an achievement to make it to bedtime without having to ingest vast quantities of pills and powders just to get through this passion play (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now.