Tag Archives: 2019 Reviews

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2019

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 28, 2019)

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As the year closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2019. Per usual I present them alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77-year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

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Dolemite is My Name – This film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a biopic about the late cult comedian and film maker Rudy Ray Moore to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who co-scripted Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic) the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety. While it doesn’t tell the complete story, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.  (Full review)

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Driveways – There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.

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The Edge of Democracy– Latin American countries have a long history as ever-simmering cauldrons of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something even more insidious at play in her country these days than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of her predecessor, the wildly popular progressive reformer Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

The real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during these events. This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; “we” have more in common with Brazil than you might think.  (Full review)

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The Irishman – If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so funny. “Funny” how? It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!  (Full review)

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MonosLord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).   (Full review)

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Putin’s Witnesses – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he “campaigns” for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history.  (Full review)

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This is Not Berlin Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

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Wild Rose – It’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. I loved the cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

Blu-ray reissue: The Woman in the Window (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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The Woman in the Window – Eureka (Region “B” locked)

Director Fritz Lang was one of the key progenitors of film noir, with entries like The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear, Human Desire, Clash by Night, The Blue Gardenia, While the City Sleeps, and this suspenseful 1944 drama.

Edward G. Robinson stars as a buttoned-down professor who becomes intrigued by a painting of a young woman that hangs in a shop near a men’s club that he frequents. One night, he’s drinking in the view, and guess whose reflection suddenly appears in the window, standing behind him?Sexy Joan Bennett plays the woman, who (in classic femme fatale fashion) enmeshes the mild-mannered sap in a web of murder and blackmail. Noir stalwart Dan Duryea is (as always) a great heavy.

Eureka’s edition features a 1080p presentation on a dual-layer disc; while it doesn’t look to be restored, it is a noticeable upgrade over the DVD. Extras include a commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, as well as written and video essays by others.

Blu-ray reissue: Until the End of the World (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Until the End of the World – The Criterion Collection

Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic is finally available as a beautifully restored transfer by Criterion, in a 287-minute director’s cut (which Wenders himself has called his “ultimate road movie”).

Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, the story centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure at best. However, to see it as it was originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

The 4K digital restoration is gorgeous, and a new 5.1 surround HD DTS audio track accentuates the film’s excellent music soundtrack (which includes songs by U2, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, et.al.). Extras include a conversation between Wenders and David Byrne and several film critic essays.

Blu-ray reissue: A Touch of Class (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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A Touch of Class  – Warner Archives

One of my favorite romantic comedies finally gets a Blu-ray upgrade, courtesy of Warner Archives. Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) the 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. George Segal and Glenda Jackson star as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

Warner continues their tradition of being stingy with extras, but the 1080p transfer, taken from a new 2K scan, delivers the highest-quality image I’ve seen of this entertaining film.

Blu-ray reissue: Slaughterhouse-Five (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Slaughterhouse-Five  – Arrow Films

Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

Arrow’s 4K restoration is superb. Critic Troy Howarth contributes one of the more entertaining commentary tracks I’ve heard in a while. Extras include new interviews with Perry King (who played Billy Pilgrim’s son) and film music historian Daniel Schweiger.

Blu-ray reissue: Rock and Roll High School (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Rock and Roll High School – Shout! Factory

In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.)

Shout Factory’s 40th anniversary edition features a new 4K scan; image is gorgeous and the colors really pop. Sound quality is a slight disappointment; it’s certainly not “bad”, but not as much of an improvement over previous Blu-ray and DVD versions as I had hoped for (especially for a film with such a great music soundtrack). Generous extras include a new 70 minute feature about the production of the film. Fans should be pleased.

Blu-ray reissue: The Reckless Moment (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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The Reckless Moment – Indicator

Max Ophul’s 1949 film noir stars Joan Bennett as an overly-protective mother who gets sucked into a maelstrom of blackmail and deceit as she tries to cover up her teenage daughter’s accidental killing of her shady middle-aged lover. Adding to Joan’s headache is the appearance of a mysterious stranger (James Mason) who threatens to spill the beans on her daughter’s affair with the recently deceased gentleman (who Mason confirms did have criminal ties). Can Joan tidy this mess before her husband returns from his overseas business trip?

Despite standard noir trappings, the story sustains an interesting moral ambiguity, with subtle shifts in character motivations (your assessment of who the “villain” is may vacillate throughout the piece).

Indicator is a UK-based outfit that puts out mostly Region “B” locked discs, but I’ve noticed on occasion they put out titles that are all-region-luckily, this is the case with The Reckless Moment (i.e., it is compatible with North American Blu-ray players). Extras include a 44-minute featurette on Max Ophul’s career by artist and author Lutz Bacher.

Blu-ray reissue: Millennium Actress (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Millennium Actress – Shout! Factory

I think some of the best sci-fi films of the past several decades have originated not from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell displayed a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions match (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the most unique masters of the form was Satoshi Kon (sadly, he died of cancer in 2010 at 46). His films mix complex characterizations with a photo-realistic visual style; making me forget that I’m watching animation. Kon drew on genres not typically associated with anime, like adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (the limited series Paranoia Agent) and this 2001 character study.

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman interview a long-reclusive actress. As she reminisces on key events of her life and career, the director and the cameraman are pulled right into the events themselves. The narrative becomes more surreal as the line blurs between the actresses’ life and the lives of her film characters. Mind-blowing and thought-provoking, it is ultimately a touching love letter to 20th Century Japanese cinema.

The restored print on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition is a thing of beauty. Extras are scarce (brief interviews with 4 of the voice actors) but it’s great to have this gem in HD!

Blu-ray reissue: Klute (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Klute  – The Criterion Collection

In the fullness of time (good god, I’m old) it’s easy to forget that respected Hollywood icon Jane Fonda toiled away in films for nearly a decade before she began to be taken seriously as an actor (her starring role in then-husband Roger Vadim’s 1968 sexploitation sci-fi trash classic Barbarella certainly didn’t help), There were two pivotal star vehicles that signaled that transition for Fonda as a creative artist – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and this lauded 1971 Alan J. Pakula film.

Fonda is “Bree”, a New York City call girl trying to transition out of the game. She becomes reluctantly embroiled in an investigation being conducted by an amateurish private detective named Klute (Donald Sutherland). Klute has been hired by a Pennsylvania-based CEO (Charles Cioffi) who wants him to track down an employee (and friend of Klute’s) who never returned from a business trip. The only clues Klute has is a stack of intimate letters written to Bree by the missing man.

While there is a definite mystery-thriller element to the story, the film is ultimately a two-character study of Bree and Klute as they develop a tenuous romantic relationship. Fonda and Sutherland are both excellent; Fonda picked up a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar that year for her work.

The 4K transfer (from the original 35mm camera negative) is outstanding. Extras include a new interview with Fonda (conducted by Illeana Douglas), several archival interviews with Pakula, and a 26-page illustrated booklet with an essay by film critic Mark Harris

Blu-ray reissue: Apocalypse Now Final Cut (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Apocalypse Now Final CutLionsgate

“Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work-a masterpiece to some; pretentious hokum to others. Me? I love it. Remember…never get outta the boat.

I know what you’re thinking (aside from “Saigon…shit…I was still in Saigon”). Do you really need to double, triple, quadruple-dip and buy another “upgraded” home video edition of this film? Well, the “final cut” label assures a certain…finality. It’s not a marketing gimmick; Coppola really has assembled a new (and final?) edit for this edition.

First, I will say this new ‘final cut” neither detracts from, nor necessarily adds anything of a particularly revelatory nature to, the famously scattershot narrative of the piece as we know and love it. That said, it’s worth noting that this is the first time the film has been scanned from the original negative and gone through a meticulous frame-by-frame restoration, and it shows. It’s a truly stunning transfer, with newly remixed audio to boot.

Extras are plentiful; including co-directors Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s excellent (theatrically released) 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which recounts the harrowing, trouble-plagued production of the film, which almost killed star Marin Sheen (he suffered a heart attack and had to be flown to the U.S. mid-shooting) and drove Coppola to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Also included are the Apocalypse Redux Extended Cut and the original theatrical version.