Tag Archives: 2019 Reviews

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Another year for me and you: 10 essential albums of 1969

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2019)

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Well, this is it. 2019-last chance to celebrate a “50th anniversary” from the 60s (did I just detect a mass sigh of relief from all the Generation X and Millennial readers out there?).

2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock…so you eye-rolling hipsters best batten down the hatches and prepare for a surge of tie-tied, acid-fried, and dewy-eyed peace love ‘n’ dope c’mon people now smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now dirty filthy hippies wallowing in the mud nostalgia…MAN.

In my 2009 review of the Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, I wrote:

If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really “there”, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

Now it’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece regarding Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, so I’ve had some additional time to smoke a couple of bowls and further reflect on what my point was. After careful consideration, I believe it was: “You had to BE there, man!”

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Anyhoo, going on the assumption that the next best thing to “being there” would be immersing yourself in the music of the era, I thought I’d mosey over to my record closet-where I hope to pluck some dusty jewels for your consideration. To wit-my picks for the top 10 most essential albums of 1969. As usual, my list is alphabetical-not ranking order.

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Abbey Road – The Beatles

Let it Be (1970) may have officially been the Beatles’ “final” studio album, but as it was recorded several months before the band’s penultimate 1969 release, it is Abbey Road that truly represents John, Paul, George and Ringo’s swan song as creative collaborators.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

After a momentary lapse of reason to allow gifted but increasingly manic enfant terrible Phil Spector to (infamously) botch production for Let it Be, the Fabs wisely brought George Martin back on board. Martin, the band, and recording engineers Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald and Alan Parsons are at the top of their game here (if you decide to pack it in, you might as well go out on top).

Choice cuts: “Come Together”, “Something”, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Because” (my god, those harmonies), “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, and (of course) the remainder of that magnificent Side 2 “suite”.

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Chicago Transit Authority – Chicago

While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of Chicago’s incredible first three double albums, beginning with this 1969 gem. The formula established here, which would continue through Chicago II and Chicago III (or what I like to call their “Roman Numeral Period”) was (for its time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section (and I’m not normally a big fan of horn sections).

Choice cuts: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, “Poem 58” (great Kath solo) and a cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m a Man”.

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Crosby, Still, & Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash

One of rock’s most enduring “supergroups” sort of fell together (as the story goes) after an informal jam at a house party in 1968. The trio may have never agreed as to who’s house this seminal event occurred at (it vacillates between Joni Mitchell’s and Cass Elliot’s place), but millions of fans have since concurred that something truly sublime and greater than the sum of its parts occurs when David Crosby (originally from The Byrds), Stephen Stills (The Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) sing three-part harmonies (occasionally joined by Neil Young…when they’re not all fighting). Their flawless debut LP has stood the test of time.

Choice cuts: All of them!

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Five Leaves Left – Nick Drake

Look in the dictionary under “melancholy” and you’ll likely find a picture of Nick Drake.

When the day is done, when the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold

When the night is cold, I like to cozy up with a good pair of headphones, a cup of chamomile, and a Nick Drake album. Yes, his music was melancholy (and likely to blame for inspiring “emo”) but it was also beautiful; spare, haunting, unforgettable. He died much too young. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this debut is a fine place to start.

Choice cuts: “Time Has Told Me”, “Three Hours”, “River Man”, “Day Is Done”, “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, “Fruit Tree”, and “Man in a Shed”.

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Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes

Singer-songwriter-musician-producer-arranger extraordinaire Isaac Hayes’ second album is, in a word, epic. Containing only 4 songs, it blew a lot of minds and set a new bar for soul music.

Before recording sessions commenced, Hayes demanded, and received full creative control from Stax Records (who I’d speculate were chagrined that there were no potential singles to mine from 4 tracks…at least not without extensive editing). I suspect Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were paying close attention, as they would make a similar push for creative independence with execs at Motown several years later.

Choice cuts: Hayes’ impeccably produced cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” is a 12-minute master class in song arranging and may very well be the inception of the “slow jam” that artists like Barry White would later build their entire careers on.

But the truly groundbreaking cut here is Hayes’ 18-minute deconstruction of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. He takes Webb’s 2-minute pop song and turns it into a cinematic tone poem, with a 9-minute spoken word preface that adds poignant backstory to the protagonist’s already heartbreaking narrative.

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In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson

It’s safe to say there was nothing else that sounded quite like this seminal prog-rock masterpiece in 1969.

Led by avant-garde guitarist/producer Robert Fripp, the group featured vocalist/bassist Greg Lake (who would later hook up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form you-know-who), keyboardist/woodwind/sax player Ian McDonald (later of Foreigner), percussionist Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield (also cryptically credited for “illumination”…their dealer, maybe?).

Many iterations of the band have followed over the years (with Fripp as the mainstay), but this remains my favorite conglomeration of personnel. Lake (with his cathedral pipes) was their finest vocalist.

Choice cuts: Pretty much all of them…from  the startling  proto-metal/jazz fusion opener “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the dreamy “I Talk to the Wind”,  the melancholic cautionary tale “Epitaph”, ethereally beautiful “Moonchild”, to the album’s appropriately magisterial closer “In The Court of the Crimson King.”

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Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin

Despite legions of loyal fans (the author of this post among them) and the countless musicians they have inspired and influenced over the past 50 years, there’s just something about these seminal English rockers what really pisses off snooty music critics.

As an out and proud middlebrow, I’ll call this a “classic” without reservation. It was tough choosing this or their very strong debut album, which was also released in 1969. I could have cheated and just counted them both as one choice (which would have made my list “go to eleven”) but I’ve got principles (stop snickering).

Led Zeppelin’s unique blend of Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal riffing and (on subsequent albums, beginning with Led Zeppelin III) Eastern music has been oft-imitated but seldom matched… inviting us to tune in, buckle up, and ride a sonic roller coaster that takes you (as Jimmy Page described it) “from the whisper…to the thunder”.

Choice cuts: “Whole Lotta Love”, “What is and What Never Should Be”, “Thank You”, “Heartbreaker”, “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” and “Ramble On” (best “wanderlust” song ever).

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The Stooges – The Stooges

Well it’s 1969 okay
All across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothing to do

Last year I was 21
I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? True story.

The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering when Iggy and the Stooges stormed straight outta Detroit with their aggressive proto-punk sound, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies.

While this debut album didn’t exactly go storming up the charts upon initial release, it is now acknowledged as a profound influence on punk’s first wave (the Sex Pistols paid homage on Never Mind the Bollocks with their sneering cover of “No Fun”).

Choice cuts: “1969”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “No Fun”, and “Real Cool Time”.

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Then Play On – Fleetwood Mac

I’ve got nothing personal against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham; they are obviously very talented folks in their own write, but…as far as I’m concerned, Fleetwood Mac “Classic” died the day they joined up with Christine McVie and stalwart founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. This 1969 release is my favorite Mac album.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Peter Green would depart the band following this release (briefly rejoining later for a few live dates), but it features some of his finest work. The bulk of the songs for this outing were written by Green and newly acquired guitarist/vocalist Danny Kirwin (a gifted player and songwriter who would stay on board until some unfortunate personal issues forced him out in 1972). Very bluesy; those who prefer the more pop-oriented Buckingham-Nicks iteration may not find much to relate to.

Choice cuts: “Coming Your Way”, “Closing My Eyes”, “Underway”, “Although the Sun is Shining”, “My Dream” (gorgeous Kirwin instrumental),“Before the Beginning” and the classic “Oh Well”.

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Tommy – The Who

There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but I’m always up for spinning all four sides. Not only one of 1969’s finest offerings, but one of the best rock albums of all time.

Choice cuts: “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

Bonus tracks!

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10 more 1969 releases worth a spin:

Beck-Ola – Jeff Beck
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazyhorse
It’s a Beautiful Day – It’s a Beautiful Day
Kick Out the Jams – The MC5
Santana – Santana
Stand Up – Jethro Tull
Stand! – Sly & the Family Stone
Tons of Sobs – Free
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2019)

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I’m sure you are aware that the (host-challenged) Academy Awards ceremonies are coming up this Sunday (broadcasting on ABC). As an alleged “movie critic”, I will sheepishly admit that I have only seen 3 of the 8 nominees for 2018’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. And I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 90 Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And I wish you kids would stay the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 81 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it seems like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ salty and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still fairly risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her playing a prostitute, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing. A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic film Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder.

Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message).

Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he truly found his voice as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a relatively recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully made neo-noir (which also earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, pickup-drivin’ good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the grisly aftermath of a shootout. And yes, being that this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to his imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The entire cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his unforgettable turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, but menacing, made all the more creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are both excellent as well.

Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t even nominated for his outstanding cinematography, but his work on this film easily ranks among his best.

In plain sight: The Invisibles (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2019)

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There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

You may remember this little item? From an August 30, 2018 Washington Post article:

Ian M. Smith, a Department of Homeland Security analyst who resigned this week after he was confronted about his ties to white nationalist groups, attended multiple immigration policy meetings at the White House, according to government officials familiar with his work.

Smith quit his job Tuesday after being questioned about personal emails he sent and received between 2014 and 2016, before he joined the Trump administration. The messages, obtained by The Atlantic and detailed in a report published Tuesday, depict Smith engaging in friendly, casual conversations with prominent white supremacists and racists. 

In one email from 2015, Smith responded to a group dinner invitation whose host said his home would be “judenfrei,” a German word used by the Nazis during World War II to describe territory that had been “cleansed” of Jews during the Holocaust. 

“They don’t call it Freitag for nothing,” Smith replied, using the German word for “Friday,” according to the Atlantic. “I was planning to hit the bar during the dinner hours and talk to people like Matt Parrot, etc.,” Smith added, a reference to the former spokesman for the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if its old junk…it’s still Reich and roll to me. Cyclical.

With Mr. Smith’s sophomoric wordplay associating “judenfrei” with “Freitag” being a given, there is nothing inherently amusing and everything troubling regarding his friend’s casual resurrection of the word “judenfrei”. It’s a word best relegated to its historical context; I can otherwise think of no reason it should otherwise pop up while shooting the breeze with friends.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I overreacting and being judgmental about Mr. Smith and his friend? After all, I don’t know these guys personally.

Perhaps the email exchange was an anomaly. Okay-so it’s documented that at least one of the people Mr. Smith pals around with is “a former spokesman for the Neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.” Still-should I give them the benefit of the doubt?

Could it be true what President Trump said when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

That said, every German citizen who remained in-country throughout the 12-year Nazi regime was not necessarily a card-carrying party member. There were Germans who were quite appalled by Hitler’s strident (and eventually murderous) anti-Semitic policies from day one.

In fact, some Germans were so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews to the point of assisting them to remain “hidden in plain sight” for the duration of the war, at great personal risk to themselves and their families. In that context, you could say that these particular Germans were (in a manner of speaking) “very fine people” (with Oskar Schindler being the most well-known example).

In 1943, following a mass roundup and arrest of the city’s remaining 30,000 Jews (who were already suffering forced labor) Berlin was officially declared “judenfrei” (last time I’ll use that ugly word in this piece…I promise). Or so the Nazis thought. 7,000 Jews managed to evade arrest and go into hiding; out of that number, 1,700 survived the war.

For his 2017 docu-drama, The Invisibles (currently making its U.S. debut in limited engagements) director Claus Räfle was able to track down four of those 1,700 persevering souls and convince them to get in front of his camera to share their stories for posterity (and none too soon; two of the four have since passed away as of this writing).

Räfle inter-cuts the contemporary witness interviews with dramatic reenactments (a la the films of documentarian Eroll Morris), voice-over narration, and archival footage of wartime Berlin to a (mostly) good effect (the acting vignettes do fall a little flat at times).

Still, as previously evidenced in Claude Lanzmann’s shattering 1984 Holocaust documentary Shoah (recommended, if you’ve never seen it), there is no amount of skilled writing, acting, or historical recreation that matches the power of a simple close-up as someone shares their story. And each of these witnesses (Hanni Levy, Cioma Schonhaus, Ruth Gumpel, and Eugen Friede) offers a survival tale you couldn’t make up.

There is not only considerable drama and suspense in their stories, but a certain amount of irony and dark humor. For example, one of the women recalls how she dyed her hair blonde, to pass as a “regular” German on the street. While this cosmetic revision undoubtedly saved her life from the Nazis, it nearly got her killed when Russian troops reached Berlin (the soldiers didn’t initially believe her when she insisted, “Please don’t shoot me! I’m Jewish!”).

It saddens me to think that within the next 25 years, all the voices of the Shoah will be forever silenced by the inescapable scourges of time and human biology; as I pointed out earlier, only two of the survivors profiled in Räfle’s film are still with us (Levy and Friede). A cynic might say the stories of these two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but I for one am grateful for the privilege of hearing them told.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Amen.

Stop that train: R.I.P. Albert Finney

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2019)

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Albert Finney died yesterday, and more people should have cared. I almost missed it myself, which is odd considering how much time I fritter and waste in an offhand way online these days. It didn’t even trend on Twitter, for fuck’s sake. No, I learned of his passing the old-fashioned way: a perfunctory mention on a nightly network TV newscast.

A file photo of Finney popped up (rarely a good sign), and the blow-dried anchor mustered all the teleprompter-fed solemnity extant in his soul to sadly inform me that “the actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of Annie has died” before moving on to “a video you have got to see”. The actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the film version of Annie? Really? That’s all you got? I wouldn’t call that his most memorable performance; I wouldn’t even consider Annie to be a particularly good movie.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre-trained Finney’s film career spanned over 50 years, and in the course of that time he proved over and over that he had chops to spare for both drama and comedy. Innately charismatic onscreen, he could effortlessly hold your attention as the dashing leading man, or just as easily embed himself into a character role.

Finney never strayed too far from his working-class roots in his off-screen demeanor. He shunned interviews and the trappings of stardom; he was all about the work. He declined the offer of a CBE (as well as a knighthood) and once compared an actor’s job to that of a bricklayer. So let’s get to work here, shall we? My picks for Finney’s top 10 film roles…

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The Dresser– Peter Yates directed this tale of a fiercely devoted “dresser” (Tom Courtenay) who tends to the mercurial lead player (Finney) of a traveling company’s production of King Lear.

The story is set against the backdrop of London during the blitz, but it’s a tossup as to who is producing more Sturm and Drang…the German bombers, the raging king, or the backstage terror who portrays him and is to be addressed by all as “Sir”. Courtenay and Finney deliver brilliant performances. Ronald Harwood adapted the script from his own play. In the most memorable scene, Sir literally halts a locomotive in its tracks at a noisy railway station with his commanding bellow to “STOP. That. Train!”

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Gumshoe– This relatively obscure U.K. gem from 1971 was produced by Finney and marked the feature film directing debut for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, et. al.). Finney is wonderful as an emcee who works in a seedy Liverpool nightclub and models himself after Philip Marlowe. He decides to indulge his long-time fantasy of becoming a private detective by placing a newspaper ad offering his services-and gets more than he bargains for with his first case.

Screenwriter Neville Smith’s clever dialog is infused with just enough shadings of Chandler and Hammet to deflect suspicion of plagiarism (and Finney thankfully doesn’t overdo his Bogey impression-which isn’t half-bad). Nice supporting turn from Billie Whitelaw, and Frears’ use of the gritty Liverpool milieu lends an appropriate “noir” vibe.

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Miller’s Crossing-This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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Orphans– There is sometimes a fine line between “intense drama” and “overcooked ham”, and while I will admit that this 1987 Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Lyle Kessler’s stage play toddles dangerously close to that line, it is still well worth your time.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson are two fringe-dwelling brothers who live on their own in a decrepit house. Finney is a low-rent Chicago gangster who gets blotto at a New Jersey bar, and upon waking up discovers he’s been “kidnapped” by Modine, who has a hold over his brother reminiscent of the dynamic between the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The story becomes even stranger when Finney decides then and there to move in and impose himself as a father figure. It’s a bit ‘stagey’, but the acting is superb.

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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning– This 1960 Karel Reisz drama gave the 24-year-old Finney his first major starring role and is one of the seminal entries of the “British New Wave” film movement. Finney delivers an explosive Brando-esque performance as a womanizing young man stuck in a dreary factory job. Allen Sillitoe adapted the screenplay from his own novel. A gritty slice of life steeped in “kitchen sink” realism.

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Shoot the Moon– Be forewarned: Alan Parker’s 1982 drama about the deterioration of a marriage pulls no punches (it is right out as a “date night” movie). Finney co-stars with Diane Keaton as a couple with four kids whose marriage is about to go kaput. As in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film essentially opens with the split, and then focuses on the immediate emotional aftershocks and its profound impact on all family members.

Absolutely heartbreaking, but beautifully acted by a skilled cast that includes Karen Allen, Peter Weller, and Dana Hill. Bo Goldman scripted, and Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lovely (the Marin County environs almost becomes a character itself).

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Tom Jones– The film that made Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety. Will he triumph? Of course, he will…the entertainment lies in how he gets there.

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

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Two For the RoadStanley Donen’s 1967 dramedy is a cinematic soufflé…folding in two generous scoops of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, seasoned with Frederick Raphael’s sophisticated script, a dash of colorful European locales, and topped by one cherry of a Henry Mancini score.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn (both at the peak of their sex appeal) exude an electric on-screen chemistry.

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Under the Volcano– John Huston’s masterful 1984 adaptation of Michael Lowry’s novel stars Finney as a self-destructive British consul stationed in Mexico on the eve of WW2. The story tracks the consul on the last day of his life, as it unfolds during Dia de los Muertas celebrations (the irony is strong in this tale). Very dark and steeped in dread. Superb performances all round from a cast that includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Guy Gallo wrote the script. My favorite Finney performance.

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Wolfen– This 1981 supernatural thriller from director Michael Wadleigh generated mixed reviews, but I think it has held up rather well. Sort of a thinking person’s horror film, it follows a NYPD homicide detective (Finney) and his partner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate a series of grisly murders. The victims’ wounds indicate something much akin to a wild animal attack. Add elements of ancient Native American legends regarding “shapeshifters” and things get…interesting. Granted, some of the early 80s visual effects haven’t aged well, but overall Wolfen is a smart, absorbing, and genuinely creepy chiller.

Put me in, coach: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2019)

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Did you know “snack stadiums” were a thing? I just learned that. I’m sure they’ve been a thing since asparagus and fig “snack coliseums” were all the rage in Rome, but I wouldn’t know, as I don’t follow football. Or basketball. Or baseball, soccer, hockey, boxing, bowling, racing, tennis, polo, curling, or shuffleboard. I have nothing against anyone who does-I’m just not a sports guy. However, I do look forward to Super Bowl Sundays for one reason: a “private screening” at the mid-afternoon matinee of my choice.

That said…while I don’t know much about sports, I can still hum a few bars. So I’ve curated my “top 10” favorite songs about my least-favorite pastime. In alphabetical order:

“Basketball Jones” (Cheech & Chong) – While this 1973 Top 40 hit by the premiere stoner comedy duo has taken on a life of its own, some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the original “smooth groove” song that it parodies… “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness (which makes it even funnier). “Cheech” Marin took on the persona of one “Tyrone Shoelaces” for lead vocals. An all-star backing track lineup includes George Harrison (!), Carole King, Tom Scott, Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, and Ronnie Spector.

“Centerfield” (John Fogerty) – After kicking off with a riff suspiciously close to Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”, the former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man is “a-roundin’ third, and headed for home” with this popular 1985 song (actually released as a “B” side).

“Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor) – This rousing theme song for Rocky III was co-written by band members Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik (former lead vocalist for The Ides of March). A #1 hit that has become everyone and your grandma’s favorite workout anthem.

“Gonna Fly Now” (Bill Conti) – That distinctive opening brass salvo from the theme originally composed for Rocky in 1976 has become the trademark for a movie franchise now 43 years in the running (2018’s Creed II was the 8th installment, if you’re counting).

“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” (Warren Zevon) – The late singer-songwriter’s droll paean to the joys of high sticking. “What else can a farm boy from Canada do?”

 “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) – Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes. Now you! (“Got big lanes. Got big lanes.”). Two and a half minutes of pure genius. Lead singer David Lowery later formed Cracker (“Teen Angst”).

“Tell the Coach” (The Bus Boys) – I always felt this unique and talented L.A. band should have been a bigger deal, but the music business is nothing if not fickle. Here’s a great tongue-in-cheek song from their 1980 debut album, Minimum Wage Rock and Roll.

“Tour de France” (Kraftwerk) – The German electro-pop pioneers leave you breathless.

“We Are the Champions” (Queen) – You may have heard this at one or two sporting events. Originally on their 1977 News of the World album, it’s Queen’s ultimate anthem.

“When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease” (Roy Harper) – Despite his huge catalog, folk-rock troubadour Roy Harper remains one of England’s best-guarded musical secrets, even after 50+ years in the business. The talented singer-songwriter has had an acknowledged influence on a number of higher-profile artists, including Kate Bush, Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant even name-checked him in their homage song “Hats Off to Roy Harper”). This wistful and enigmatic tune from his 1974 album HQ is one of my faves. All I can tell you is-cricket is involved.

Born with the safety off: The Ted Bundy Tapes (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 26, 2019)

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“Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I just want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.”

— Judge Edward Cowart to Ted Bundy after sentencing him to the electric chair for the Chi Omega murders.

“For everything he did to the girls–the bludgeoning, the strangulation, humiliating their bodies, torturing them–I feel that the electric chair is too good for him.”

— Eleanor Rose, mother of victim Denise Naslund.

I have avoided pasting a photo of serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy at the top of my review of the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes for a couple of reasons. Foremost, in such sensationalized killing sprees there’s a tendency to bury the victims in a figurative sense; i.e. regardless how many they number (Bundy confessed to snuffing out the lives of 36 young women), they are lumped together and enshrined as “the victims”, which is dehumanizing (no one aspires to be a “victim”). The women he murdered had names. They had people who cared about them. They had lives.

Secondly, the late Mr. Bundy requires no help from me to assure that his cult of celebrity remain steadfast. I admit being a “true crime” buff, but I wouldn’t call myself a “fan” of his. Or Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, David Berkowitz, or Richard Ramirez for that matter. The fact remains that many such monsters do have a fan base—for reasons yet to be adequately explained to me via logic or science.

This likely explains the interest surrounding Joe Berlinger’s 4-hour documentary (which premiered on Netflix this past Thursday) as well as festival buzz regarding Berlinger’s upcoming companion piece, the narrative film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (starring Zac Efron as Bundy). 2019 also marks the 30th anniversary of his execution.

The fitful sleep I suffered after binge-watching all 4 episodes the other night confirmed my suspicions going in that Mr. Bundy’s grave will never be cold enough for those of us “of a certain age” who couldn’t escape ubiquitous media coverage of his 1978 Miami murder trial (which holds distinction as the first nationally televised court proceedings).

His 1978 arrest (initially on a completely unrelated charge) signaled the end to a horrific orgy of violence that began in Seattle in 1974 (possibly earlier) and ended with the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in Lake City, Florida.

Bundy had already been on the radar of investigators in Washington State, Utah, and Colorado for a few years but was so wily and slippery that no single law enforcement agency had enough evidence to directly connect him with any specific missing person or murder case (it wasn’t as common then for police departments in different states to share information).

Berlinger had a trove of archival interview footage at his disposal; Bundy (a classic narcissist) not only loved to parade in front of cameras at every opportunity afforded him but also left behind 100 hours of audio interviews, granted exclusively by the condemned killer to journalists Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth as he sat on Death Row.

In Bundy’s twisted, egocentric view, the interviews were for his “biography”, but what co-authors Michaud and Aynesworth were after was a peek inside the psyche of a serial killer. Keep in mind that Bundy had only been legally proven responsible for the deaths of two Florida coeds and Kimberly Leach; at the time he’d yet to confess to any criminal acts, period (and he still held firm to his “not guilty” plea regarding the Florida murders).

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on the journalists that they were being played by Bundy, who was doing a lot of talking about sunny childhood memories and such but really saying nothing regarding culpability in any of the crimes he had been convicted and/or suspected of committing. Confronting him directly that this obfuscation nullified their original deal only made Bundy dig his heels in deeper, threatening to clam up altogether.

The impasse was broken by a brainstorm. What if they stroked Bundy’s ego, asking him to lend his third person “insight” on helping them build a psychological profile of this “person” who did commit all these heinous crimes (they knew Bundy had taken psychology courses in college and fancied himself quite the expert). It worked like a charm-Bundy was more than happy to put his two cents in (and a couple of extra nickels).

Berlinger’s strategic interjections of Bundy’s “observations” adds an extra degree of creepiness to the proceedings. While this is a clever device, it does beg a question: was it necessary to double down on the already creepy nature of Bundy’s deeds (which are of a particularly repellent and diabolical nature, even when judged by serial killer standards)?

The overall vibe is more horror show than historical documentation. Otherwise, it’s engrossing enough to hold the interest of true crime aficionados, although it doesn’t offer any new insights or revelations that haven’t already been parsed through the decades. As for the Big Questions like “Why?” or “Nature or Nurture”? don’t hold your breath. Perhaps it’s as one interviewee says; some humans are simply “born with the safety off.”  

Making ends meet: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2019)

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As we enter the 3rd week of the “partial” government shutdown, we’re hearing more and more stories of how it’s affecting thousands of federal employees and contractors who are either on forced furloughs, or who are being asked to continue working…without pay. 

This has not only thrown a spotlight on how many of the folks who help keep the country running smoothly are barely scraping by as it is, but it has opened a broader dialogue on how many Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, period. The stats are not too rosy:

[from US News & World Report]

In fact, living paycheck to paycheck – meaning there’s not a cash cushion to cover the bills if the income stops for a while – is a common condition in America. In the 12th richest nation in the world by per capita GDP, nearly 8 in 10 U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 study  by CareerBuilder, a human capital management firm. And the trend crosses over income groups: more than half of minimum wage workers said they needed to hold down two jobs to make ends meet, while one in 10 workers earning $100,000 or more yearly say they live paycheck to paycheck.

And if there’s an emergency? A large number of Americans don’t have an accessible stash of money to cover a substantial health care expense or car repair, studies show. The Federal Reserve Board in 2017 found that 44 percent of American households surveyed could not cover a $400 emergency expense.

Oy vay.

With that cheery thought in mind (and in consideration of the adage “misery loves company”) I’ve curated a playlist of songs that appropriately…commiserate. Erm, enjoy?

 (In alphabetical order…)

“Blue Collar” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

“Five O’clock World” – The Vogues

“Hole to Hide In” – Foghat

Manic Monday” – The Bangles

“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton

 “Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron

“She Works Hard for the Money” – Donna Summer

“Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell

“Working Class Hero” – John Lennon 

“Work to Do” – The Isley Brothers 

Arriba, abajo: Roma (***)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2019)

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (currently available on Netflix) is one of those contemporary arthouse flicks that has “A Compendium of Classic World Cinema” tattooed on its forehead (either that, or “I’ve Seen Too Many Goddamned Movies” is tattooed on mine).

For example, take the title, which recalls Fellini’s Roma (1972), his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years. Cuaron’s film is his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years; although in this case it refers not to Rome, Italy but to the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City where he grew up.

The story centers on a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who is employed as a maid for an upper middle-class family living in politically turbulent Mexico City during the early 1970s. There is another maid in the household named Adela (Nancy Garcia), but Cleo looks to be the de facto nanny, showing a close and loving bond with the 4 children.

The father (Fernando Grediaga) is a physician, who travels frequently due to his work. Or so it seems; when he takes an extended trip to Quebec on “business”, the worst fears of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are confirmed when she learns he’s decided to play house for keeps with his mistress (World Cinema Rule #142…there’s always a mistress).

As Sofia struggles with how she is going to gently break the news to her kids that daddy has split town on them because he is a cheating bastard, the family dynamic is further complicated when Cleo finds herself struggling with how she’s going to gently break the news to her employer that she is with child by her short-term boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who splits town on her faster than you can say “I think I’m pregnant.”

If the narrative is beginning to sound not dissimilar to a tawdry telenovela, you are very perceptive. Cuaron’s cliché-ridden script is not the film’s strongest suit. That said, the man knows how to set up a shot, and his eye is keen (Cuaron pulled cinematography duty here as well). In fact, his B&W photography is stunning enough to forgive a flimsy story.

Where Curaon excels here is in giving the viewer an immersive sense of time and place. There are several memorable set-pieces; most notably a scene wherein the children’s grandmother helps a very pregnant Cleo shop for a crib. That everyday mundanity may not make for riveting cinema, but the situation percolating in the street right in front of the store, which suddenly escalates and engulfs the women in a horrifying manner…does.

I’ll admit being a little late to the party on this film, which has popped up on a surprising number of critics’ “10 best” lists for 2018. I say “surprising” because it has had limited theatrical engagements since late November and has only been streaming on Netflix since December 14th (I stumbled across it quite by accident while scrolling through the network’s maddeningly unsearchable programming menu).

It has also been nominated for 3 Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (as I have already discussed, I have to raise a Belushi eyebrow regarding that screenplay nom).

While many of my fellow critics have swooned mightily under its apparent spell, for me Roma is, alas, a mixed bag. Aparicio has a quietly charismatic screen presence and gives a fine, naturalistic performance as Cleo; although you wish she’d been given a little more to do with her substantial screen time beyond playing the quietly suffering, archetypal Noble Peasant.

Visually, it’s quite a beautiful film. And there is certainly nothing wrong with emulating and evoking the likes of Fellini, Kalatozov, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and other masters of world cinema. It’s just a bit of a disappointment from Curaon, who has given us some outstanding films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity.