Tag Archives: 2018 Reviews

Size matters not: Big Sonia (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

— Helen Keller

As a corollary to my review of 12 Years a Slave, I referenced Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, making this observation:

[Shoah] is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted.

There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary, Big Sonia, where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer). But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world.

Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. An eighty-something widow, she lives in Kansas City and runs her own business, John’s Tailoring (named after her late husband, who started the modest shop many years ago). Located in an otherwise abandoned mall, the shop nonetheless boasts a sizeable base of dedicated customers, who are really more of an extended family.

You can see what earns the customers’ loyalty; the warm, personable Sonia has an infectious enthusiasm for life. This may seem unremarkable in and of itself; as we’ve all known people who can “light up a room”. But once you learn her history, it’s astounding.

Because you see, Sonia is not only the last proprietress standing in the empty mall, but one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. No Holocaust survivor’s tale is a happy one, but Sonia’s is particularly harrowing and heartbreaking. During the war, she endured death marches and internment at several concentration camps. When she was 15, she watched helplessly as her mother was herded into the gas chambers. On liberation day, fate dealt her a cruel blow when she was accidentally shot through the chest.

Those experiences would break anyone’s spirit; but Sonia managed to move on with her life, eventually meeting and marrying fellow survivor John. To be sure, Sonia and her husband, who both maintained upbeat attitudes, were still haunted by their horrible wartime experiences (the couple’s now adult children recount how they would sometimes be awakened at night by their late father, who would scream in his sleep). Even after her husband passed away, Sonia refused to give in the dark side; devoting herself to the shop.

Running the shop is only her day job. Not content to rest on her laurels, Sonia devotes much of her spare time to community involvement. Rather than suppressing the darkest days of her life, she speaks about them publicly, and frequently. Her mission, however, is not to bring people down, but to lift them up. In essence, her message is: You think you’ve got insurmountable problems in your life? Look at the hand I was dealt. I have every conceivable right to be bitter, angry, and depressed. Yet I choose to be an optimist.

Even when she is given notice to vacate the mall, her optimism doesn’t falter (no spoilers). And there are other surprises in store as the film makers slowly unpeel the many layers of this remarkable woman’s resolve and the depth of her empathy for others (by the way, co-director Warshawski is Sonia’s granddaughter, but commendably maintains a  sense of intimacy without turning her portrait into a glorified home movie).

Sonia certainly puts me to shame. I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. After seeing this woman in action, one is reminded of Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “Judge me by my size, do you?” And, Sonia has a major edge on Yoda…she apparently has a killer-bee homemade gefilte fish recipe. Yummy delish!

Sew into you: Phantom Thread (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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It wasn’t just me. Halfway through Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s claustrophobic chamber drama examining the pitfalls of obsessive, overly-possessive love in its many-splintered guises, I began to think “Uh-Hitchcock’s Rebecca? Anyone?”

Fast-forward a few days, and I stumble across a Rolling Stone interview with Anderson:

[Anderson] “I love Hitchcock’s Rebecca so much, but I watch it and about halfway through, I always find myself wishing that Joan Fontaine would just say, “Right, I have had enough of your shit. I think I have had more than my fair share of your bullshit, so let me just get the fuck out of here.” [Laughs] And yet poor Joan has to keep putting up with it.”

Well okay, then.

If you are not familiar, Rebecca is Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who falls in love with a rich widower (Laurence Olivier). They quickly marry, and he spirits her away to his lavish estate.

Initially, it’s like a storybook romance for the young bride; but she soon finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive housekeeper, who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules” (like one of those severe matrons in a women’s prison film). And indeed, the question becomes: is the young wife the mistress of the house…or is she its prisoner?

Which begs a question. Why do people tend to take more than their fair share of bullshit (and usually for much longer than they should) when they are in a less-than-ideal relationship? Is it as simple as Woody Allen conjectured…“Because we need the eggs”?

Ah, the mysteries of love. But back to the subject at hand, before I lose the thread (sorry).

Anderson has reenlisted his There Will Be Blood leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis. In (what is purported to be) his swan song role, Day-Lewis inhabits Reynolds Woodcock, a London-based, high-end fashion designer who caters to the fashionistas and blue bloods of 1950s Europe.

As I watched Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon.

He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?). At any rate, Woodcock is an atypical male, with an apprising gaze that suggests he’s mentally dressing every new woman he meets.

One day, while enjoying a country getaway, the well-appointed, metropolitan Woodcock espies the woman (or the muse?) of his dreams-a young waitress of modest means and nebulous European accent, named Alma (Vicky Krieps). It appears to be love at first sight, but appearances can be deceiving. The disparity between what Reynolds and Alma each defines as “love” informs the ensuing relationship, and the film’s central narrative.

Akin to the aforementioned Hitchcock film, the star-struck young woman/soon-to-be bride is spirited off to lavish digs, where she finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive figure who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules”. In this case, the third wheel isn’t the housekeeper, but rather Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), also his business partner.

Without giving too much away, this is where Anderson’s film significantly parts ways with Hitchcock’s; as the issue of who is the “warden” and who is the “prisoner” in this love relationship becomes a shifting dynamic.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, there’s always a tenuous “balance of power” in any relationship, personal or familial. In this respect, Phantom Thread, while a unique entry in an already offbeat canon, does retain certain themes prevalent throughout Anderson’s oeuvre. As I observed in my review of Anderson’s 2012 drama, The Master:

And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in “Hard Eight”, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights”, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in “Magnolia”, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood”).

Obviously, there is no “father/son” (nor “father/daughter”-thank god) analogy to Reynold and Alma’s love affair in Phantom Thread, but their relationship does vacillate between husband/wife, artist/muse, mentor/apprentice, and (in its own fashion) master/servant.

It seems redundant to tell you that Daniel Day-Lewis’ typically immersive performance is nothing short of astonishing. If he really is hanging up his Oscar-baiting shoes after this one, I’m missing him already (as is the Academy, apparently…he snagged a Best Actor nomination earlier this week). Krieps and Manville (up for Best Supporting Actress) are also quite wonderful.

Like most of the director’s work, it may not be for all tastes, but if you are up for a challenge and willing to pay attention, this movie is tailor-made for you.

In Dreams: Farewell, Ursula K. Le Guin

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2018)

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Geek flags at half-staff. Earlier today, we learned of the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin, sci-fi/fantasy writer extraordinaire. She was one of the last of a classic generation…Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury. She once said: “I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.” It’s a huge loss. My favorite film adaptation of a Le Guin story is “The Lathe of Heaven”, which I wrote about a few years back…

(This review originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo, July 21, 2007)

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One of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films is The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV” sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy.

Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

Blood at the root: An MLK Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding RFK was killed 2 months later on June 5th, my parents’ wedding anniversary…but I won’t go there).

There will be plenty of discussion and contemplation regarding that tragic day in a couple of months, especially as this will be the 50th anniversary, so I won’t dwell on that now. This holiday weekend is about celebrating his birthday. So tonight I wanted to share my top 10 picks for songs to honor the life and legacy of Rev. King. In alphabetical order…

“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young…

“Barack Obama” – Yes, Cocoa Tea’s song is very much about MLK. Besides, you need to hear this right now. Remember, history is cyclical; one day, the sun will shine again.

“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.

“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).

“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.

“Pieces of a Man” – The late Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – Including U2’s stirring anthem feels mandatory here.

“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s song was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.

“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.