Tag Archives: 2020 Reviews

Blu-ray Reissue: Salesman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/bostonglobe-prod.cdn.arcpublishing.com/resizer/yqOoMzNk7fifdfY1tGxaUcsL1NA=/1440x0/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-bostonglobe.s3.amazonaws.com/public/J7UBF5ZEU5HSZFJOJGHNS2JPT4.jpg?ssl=1

Salesman – Criterion Collection

Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

Criterion has done their usual bang-up job here, starting with a new restored 4K digital transfer. There is a commentary track by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (from 2001). Extras include an archival 1968 TV interview with both Maysles brothers (sadly, all three directors are no longer with us).

The inclusion of “Globesman”, a spot-on 2016 parody of Salesman from the “mockumentary” IFC series Documentary Now! was a nice surprise (there’s also a short appreciation of Salesman by Documentary Now! co-creator Bill Hader).

Blu-ray Reissue: Mystery of the Wax Museum [1933] (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/bottomshelfmovies.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/19879EDA-5FCE-4AED-8A4C-E5BDDE36B2EC.jpeg?ssl=1

Mystery of the Wax Museum – Warner Archive Collection

“Images of wax that throbbed with human passion!” Get your mind out of the gutter…I’m merely quoting the purple prose that graced the original posters for this 1933 horror thriller, directed by the eclectic Michael Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, et.al.).

Beautiful (and busy) Fay Wray (who starred in King Kong the same year) captures the eye of a disturbed wax sculptor (a hammy Lionel Atwill) for reasons that are ah…more “professional” than personal. Wray is great eye candy, but it is her co-star Glenda Farrell who steals the show as a wisecracking reporter (are there any other kind of reporters in 30s films?). Farrell’s comedy chops add just the right amount of levity to this genuinely creepy tale. A classic.

The film was considered “lost” until a lone, worn out print was discovered around 1970. It was originally filmed in the long-defunct Two-Color Technicolor process, adding to the challenge of an accurate restoration. Thank the gods for the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Foundation, who tackled the project with their usual aplomb (with a little sugar from the George Lucas Family Foundation). The result is a glorious print that will make buffs wax poetic (sorry). Extras include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray.

Blu-ray Reissue: Criss-Cross (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

https://i1.wp.com/cdn.britannica.com/69/90569-050-2F89AFCB/Yvonne-De-Carlo-Burt-Lancaster-Criss-Cross.jpg?ssl=1

Criss-Cross – Eureka Masters of Cinema (Region “B” locked)

Film noir aficionados are sure to rejoice once they see this gorgeous 4K digital restoration of the 1949 classic from revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.).

Burt Lancaster stars as an underpaid and over-worked armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her new marriage to a local mobster (veteran noir heavy Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his half-hearted involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, highly atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

The 1080p transfer of the 4K restoration is luminous; one of the best I have seen in a while for a classic period film noir. There are two audio commentary tracks; I have only listened to the one by film scholar Adrian Martin, who is quite enlightening. Among the extras: 31-page collector’s booklet and the Screen Director’s radio adaptation from 1949.

Blu-ray Reissue: Britannia Hospital (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

https://images.justwatch.com/backdrop/9114880/s1440/britannia-hospital

Britannia Hospital – Indicator Limited Edition (Region “B” locked)

This 1982 satire (a wild mashup of The Hospital, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Magic Christian) was the final third of iconoclastic UK writer-director Lindsay Anderson’s loosely-linked “Mick Travis” trilogy. Malcolm McDowell reprises his role as Travis, the protagonist of If…. (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973).

Anderson’s satirical targets are less defined than in the previous two films, resulting in a broad take-down of everything from the U.K.’s National Health system to corporate culture, royalty, classism and ineffectual politicos. Still, it succeeds as a two-fingered salute to Thatcherism (considering the year it came out). Huge cast; many returning from the previous films. Weirdest casting: Mark Hamill!

Indicator’s Blu-ray is a limited edition (3,000 copies) and Region “B” locked (requires a region-free player). The high-definition remastering is pristine. I have not had a chance to plow through all the extras yet, but they are plentiful. There are newly produced interviews with several participants in the production, as well as a 117-minute 1991 interview with the late director (audio only) produced as part of The British History Project.

Blu-ray reissue: All Night Long (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BZDhlZmJkM2MtNTI2Ni00YzhhLWI4Y2ItNGUyMmE1MDRlMjkxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg?ssl=1

All Night Long – Kino-Lorber

This quirky, underrated romantic comedy from Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont has been a personal favorite of mine since I first stumbled across it on late-night TV back in the mid-80s (with a million commercials).

Reminiscent of Michael Winner’s 1967 social satire I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, the film opens with a disenchanted executive (Gene Hackman) telling his boss to shove it, which sets the tone for the mid-life crisis that ensues.

Along the way, Hackman accepts a demotion offered by upper management in lieu of termination (night manager at one of the company’s drug stores), has an affair with his neighbor’s eccentric wife (an uncharacteristically low-key Barbra Streisand) who has been fooling around with his teenage son (Dennis Quaid), says yes to a divorce from his wife (Dianne Ladd) and decides to become an inventor (I told you it was quirky).

Marred slightly by some incongruous slapstick, but well-salvaged by W.D. Richter’s drolly amusing screenplay. Hackman is wonderful as always, and I think the scene where Streisand sings a song horrendously off-key (while accompanying herself on the organ) is the funniest thing she’s ever done in a film. Despite Hackman and Streisand’s star power, the movie was curiously ignored when it was initially released. Maybe this reissue will help it find new fans.

Even though the film does not necessarily appear to have been restored, the 1080p presentation is sharp, with decent color saturation. The sole extra is a new interview with screenwriter Richter, who (to my surprise) is cantankerous about how the film turned out!

The Jasmine in My Mind: A Summer mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 27, 2020)

https://i1.wp.com/pbs.twimg.com/media/ChYsS74WgAAzrGQ.jpg?ssl=1

Is it nearly July already?! For those of us who tend to obsess over the inexorable decline of Western civilization, it’s easy to lose track of the “little things” like, you know, the time-space continuum. Take a breather. Grab some beach time. Well, “figurative” beach time; somewhere safe. How about the backyard? Break out the chaise lounge, barbecue something, enjoy a cold drink(s). Don’t forget the tunes. Here are my picks for the 25 best summer songs. You’ve heard some a bazillion times; others, not so much. To be played at maximum volume! Alphabetically…

First Class – “Beach Baby” – UK studio band First Class was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Tony Burrows, who also sang lead on other one-hit wonders, including “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” (The Edison Lighthouse), “My Baby Loves Lovin’” (White Plains), and “United We Stand” (The Brotherhood of Man). This pop confection was a Top 10 song in the U.S. in 1974.

Don Henley– “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley’s most durable post-Eagles hit also features his finest lyrics.

Jade Warrior– “Bride of Summer” – Here’s a summer tune you’ve never heard on the radio. This hard-to-categorize band has been around since the early 70s; progressive jazz-folk-rock-world beat is the best I can do. Sadly, original guitarist Tony Duhig passed away in 1990. His multi-tracked lead on this song is sublime.

Bananarama– “Cruel Summer” – A more melancholy take on the season from the Ronettes of New Wave. I seem to recall a rather heavy rotation of this video on MTV in the summer of ’84. The video is a great time capsule of 1980s NYC.

Pink Floyd– “Granchester Meadows” – This is from one of Pink Floyd’s more obscure albums, Ummagumma. Anyone who has ever sat under a shady tree on a summer’s day strumming a guitar will “get” this song, which is one of David Gilmour’s most beautiful compositions. I love how he incorporates nature sounds. Aaahh…

Joni Mitchell– “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” – The haunting title cut from Joni’s 1975 album, co-written by drummer John Guernin (who also plays Moog). The song also features Victor Feldman on keyboards and James Taylor on guitar.

Sly & the Family Stone– “Hot Fun in the Summertime” – A quintessential summer song and an oldies radio staple. And don’t forget…I “cloud nine” when I want to.

Walter Egan– “Hot Summer Nights” – A memorable cut from Egan’s 1977 album Fundamental Roll, which was produced by Lindsay Buckingham. Buckingham contributes the tasty guitar licks (and backing vocals, along with Stevie Nicks).

Ray Charles– “In the Heat of the Night” – This sultry, swampy main title theme for the eponymous 1967 Best Picture winner (composed by Quincy Jones, with lyrics by Marlilyn and Alan Bergman) is a perfect marriage of music and film.

Mungo Jerry– “In the Summertime” – It wouldn’t have worked without the jug.

The Dream Academy– “Indian Summer” – If there are five stages of summer, here’s acceptance: When August and September just become memories of songs/to be put away with the summer clothes/and packed up in the attic for another year.

Chris Rea– “Looking for the Summer” – This ever-haunting song somehow encapsulates the Summer of COVID.

Marshall Crenshaw– “Starless Summer Sky” – In a just world, this power pop genius would have ruled the airwaves. Here’s one of many perfect examples why.

The Isley Brothers– “Summer Breeze” – Yes, I know Seals & Crofts did the original version, but the Isleys always had a knack for making covers their own.

The James Gang– “Summer Breezes” – Not to be confused with the previous tune, this is an original song written by the late, great Tommy Bolin, who replaced Joe Walsh in 1973. Catchy, melodic rock with great slide work by Bolin.

The Lovin’ Spoonful– “Summer in the City” – All around, people lookin’ half-dead/walkin’ on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head. Written by John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian and Steve Boone, this 1966 hit is a clever portmanteau of music, lyrics and effects that quite literally sounds like…summer in the city.

The Webb Brothers– “Summer People” – Christaan, Justin, and James Webb started out with a pretty good pedigree-they’re the sons of songwriter Jimmy Webb. This catchy, Who-ish number is taken from their 2000 album, Marooned.

Chad & Jeremy– “A Summer Song” – The biggest hit for this British pop duo (it made the Top 10 in 1964). I always thought it had a Simon & Garfunkel vibe to it.

XTC– “Summer’s Cauldron/Grass” – A mini-suite of sorts, all about summer romance, lazy days, and the uh, things we did on grass. Produced by Todd Rundgren.

Ella Fitzgerald  & Louis Armstrong– “Summertime” – This classic George Gershwin song (from his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess) has been covered by many artists (allegedly 25,000 versions), but I feel that Lady Ella and Louis Armstrong’s duet version is definitive.

Blue Cheer– “Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran wrote and performed it originally, and the Who did a great cover on Live at Leeds, but for sheer attitude, I’ve got to go with this proto-punk (some have argued, proto-metal) classic from 1968.

The Kinks– “Sunny Afternoon” – This poor guy. Taxman’s taken all his dough, girlfriend’s run off with his car…but he’s not going to let that ruin his summer: Now I’m sittin here/ sippin’ at my ice-cooled beer/ lazin’ on a sunny afternoon…

The Drifters– “Under the Boardwalk” – Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick wrote this iconic 1964 Top 10 hit, and Johnny Moore sings the lead tenor vocal. The group has a very strained and byzantine history (over 60 members since 1953), but its legacy is assured by the likes of this tune, “On Broadway”, “Save the Last Dance for Me”, “This Magic Moment”, “Dance With Me”, “Up on the Roof”, and many others.

Central Line– “Walking into Sunshine” – This jazz-funk outfit hailed from the UK and produced three albums from 1978-1984. This 1981 tune was a U.S. club hit.

The Beach Boys– “The Warmth of the Sun” – This song (featuring one of Brian Wilson’s most gorgeous melodies), appeared on the 1964 album Shut Down Vol 2. Atypically introspective and melancholy for this era of the band, it had an unusual origin story. Wilson and Mike Love allegedly began work on the tune in the wee hours of the morning JFK was assassinated; news of the event changed the tenor of the lyrics, as well as having an effect on the emotion driving the vocal performance.

Primal doubts and all: Tommaso (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/www.filminquiry.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/TommasoCover.jpg?fit=1050%2C700&ssl=1

The artist is the medium between his fantasies and the rest of the world.

 — Federico Fellini

There are few tougher sells to moviegoers than a film that simmers in the navel-gazing angst of a creatively blocked filmmaker. Yet it has become a venerable sub-genre you can trace at least as far back as Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea plays a director of populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road masquerading as a penniless railroad tramp. His crash-course in “social realism” becomes more than he bargained for. What did he expect? I mean, talk about “bitching in Paradise”…am I right?

As I noted in my 2013 review of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (aka The Great Beauty), a drama regarding an acclaimed novelist who is weathering an existential crisis:

Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.

While The Great Beauty is not about a film maker, it is nonetheless a direct descendant of Federico Fellini’s . Fellini’s 1963 drama about a creatively blocked director stewing over his next project offered a groundbreaking take on the “blocked artist” trope. With a non-linear narrative and flights of fantasy, it injected the “metaphysical” into the “meta”.

It was outrageously over-the-top and completely self-indulgent (especially for 1963), but Fellini’s film managed to strike a chord with audiences and critics. That is not an easy trick to pull off. In a 2000 retrospective on the film, Roger Ebert offered this explanation:

Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.

It also was (and remains) a hugely influential work. Films like Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) are a few of the more notable works with strong echoes of 8½.

Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso [now playing nationally in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee] is the latest descendant of ; although it offers a less fanciful and decidedly more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is certainly no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is (to say the least) a troubled, troubled man.

Tommaso is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and 3 year-old daughter Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara). At first glance, Tommaso leads an idyllic life; he has ingratiated himself by taking Italian lessons from a private tutor and appears to be a fixture in his neighborhood, cheerfully going about his daily errands with the unhurried countenance of a native local.

However, as we are given more time to observe Tommaso’s home life, there is increasing evidence of trouble in Paradise. Aside from the classic schisms that tend to occur in May-December relationships, Tommaso and Nikki obviously struggle with some cultural differences. Tommaso is also on edge because he is working on a storyboard for his next film (with elements that recall The Revenant) but can’t decide what he wants it to “say”.

The angst really kicks in when Tommaso attends an AA meeting. And then another, and another. While these scenes (i.e. monologues) are somewhat static and are potential deal-breakers for some viewers, they are key in communicating Tommaso’s inner turmoil.

Of course, the question becomes…do you care? Is this all just more of that “Pottery Barn angst” that I mentioned earlier? Dude…you have a beautiful young wife and an adorable little girl, you’re slumming in Rome, you’re an artist who makes his own schedule…and all you do is whinge and moan about how your life sucks, meow-meow woof-woof. Oh, please!

On the other hand, keep in mind this is an Abel Ferrara film. Historically, Ferrara does not churn out “light” fare. If you have seen China Girl, Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Addiction, The Funeral, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, et.al.-you know he is a visceral and uncompromising filmmaker. What I’m suggesting is, don’t give up on this too early; stay with it, give it some time to stew (I confess- it took me two viewings to “get there”).

The main impetus for sticking with the film (which ultimately shares more commonalities with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life than with ) is to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material.

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/images.dailyhive.com/20200610161746/Capitol-Hill-Autonomous-Zone.jpeg?resize=645%2C331&ssl=1

Hey you know something people
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lots a times
I wish I could say I’m not white

— Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day”

It has been an interesting week here in Mayberry (the one with the Space Needle).

As the Seattle Police Department works to broker a deal with protesters occupying an autonomous zone in the heart of Capitol Hill, a Seattle City Council member said the area known as “CHAZ” should remain in community control permanently.

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, known as “CHAZ,” has been in community control since Tuesday when Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best decreased the officers’ presence in the East Precinct to allow for peaceful protests.

Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant called the “CHAZ” movement a major victory. She said the area should be turned over permanently into community control, instead of back in the hands of the Seattle Police Department.

Sawant said she plans to create legislation to turn the East Precinct into a community center for restorative justice. The councilwoman wants to discuss the legislation with people involved in CHAZ, black community organizations, restorative justice, faith, anti-racist, renter organizations, land trusts, groups, labor unions that have a proven record of fighting racism.

Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) let’s get this party started right
Right on, c’mon
What we got to say (yeah)
Power to the people no delay
Make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

— Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

Yes, I live in a blue city chock full of Marxists and dirty Hippies. Few cities are “bluer” than Seattle. We have have a weed shop on every corner. We have public statues of Jimi Hendrix and V.I. Lenin. We have a progressive, openly gay female mayor. We have a female African American police chief. We have a high-profile female city council member who is a Socialist Alternative. As Merlin once foretold-a dream for some…a nightmare for others:

Oh, dear. Let’s take a peek at the terrorist-fueled burning and pillaging that has been raging in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone for the past week (sensitive viewers be warned):

https://i0.wp.com/www.staradvertiser.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/AP20164040659527.jpg?resize=645%2C430&ssl=1

The humanity. Not quite as harrowing as a Burning Man festival…but in the ballpark.

My insufferable facetiousness aside, there is in fact a “revolution” happening in Seattle right now; and on streets all over America. “Revolution” doesn’t always equate “burning and pillaging”. Granted, some of that did occur when the protests started two weeks ago.

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

— The Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

But there is something happening here; something percolating worldwide that goes deeper than that initial visceral expression of outrage over the injustice of George Floyd’s senseless death; it feels like change may be in the offing. It will still take some…nudging. And I fear some feathers may get ruffled.

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail.

— Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice”

So it is in that spirit that I say come gather ’round, people-wherever you roam, and give a listen to my mixtape of 15 protest songs…some old, some newer, but all as timely as ever.

Alphabetically…

Green Day – “American Idiot”

The Temptations – “Ball of Confusion”

Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”

The Buffalo Springfield  – “For What It’s Worth”

The Wailers – “Get Up, Stand Up”

The Specials – “Ghost Town”

Malvina Reynolds – “It Isn’t Nice”

Stevie Wonder – “Living For the City”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Ohio”

The Beatles – “Revolution”

Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Bob Dylan – “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – “Trouble Every Day”

Marvin Gaye – “What’s Goin’ On”

The Clash – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2020)

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EZbhMISWAAA-qhr?format=jpg&name=medium

(June 6, 2020)“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Frederick Douglass said that in 1852. In an infamous gaffe uttered while attending a breakfast with some African-American supporters in honor of Black History Month back in February 2017, President Donald J. Trump described the famed (and long-dead) 19th century abolitionist as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” In recognition of the fact that even a stopped clock is is accurate twice a day, and in light of the extraordinary worldwide protest movement that unfolded this past week in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic, senseless death, I am re-posting my 2019 Martin Luther King tribute .

(January 19, 2019)

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

https://i2.wp.com/www.wwnytv.com/resizer/mGjaJ-C4OjSU0VAl7bsk_M0Hr8Q=/1200x0/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-raycom.s3.amazonaws.com/public/DIHDTYS6IZFENBKW5SEROXGYHA.jpg?ssl=1

Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

https://i1.wp.com/static01.nyt.com/images/2011/09/04/arts/04POWER4_SPAN/04POWER5-articleLarge.jpg?ssl=1

The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

https://i2.wp.com/static.rogerebert.com/uploads/review/primary_image/reviews/the-boys-of-baraka-2006/EB20060302REVIEWS60301012AR.jpg?ssl=1

The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

https://i1.wp.com/d1nslcd7m2225b.cloudfront.net/Pictures/2000x2000fit/6/2/4/1254624_untitled-article-1484759034-body-image-1484759665.jpg?ssl=1

The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

https://i1.wp.com/womenyoushouldknow.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/girls-big.jpg?ssl=1

The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

https://i1.wp.com/rinoartdistrict.org/_files/images/dpl_redline_feb2020.jpg?ssl=1

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

https://i2.wp.com/unaffiliatedcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/IN-THE-HEAT-OF-THE-NIGHT.jpeg?ssl=1

In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) 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. (Full review)

https://i2.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNWEzYTBkODQtYjE4MC00NzY2LWE4NDgtYWY1OTU5NWVkMTRhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_.jpg?ssl=1

The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

https://ca-times.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/f9d55c6/2147483647/strip/true/crop/600x434+0+0/resize/840x608!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia-times-brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fef%2Ffa%2Fde02de486b6e0f97f54d3a8c888d%2Fla-xpm-photo-2013-oct-17-la-et-mn-let-fire-burn-review

Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/6780a0a02e1fa32f56244e88323874fb?width=650

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

Chicago 10

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Medium Cool

Secret Honor

— Dennis Hartley

Hands up: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/www.kinolorber.com/media_cache/images/filmgalleryfull/GreyFox_Still_5%20.jpg?ssl=1

What were the odds? A couple weeks ago, I Tweeted this:

I hadn’t thought about The Grey Fox in years; it’s one of my favorite 80s sleepers. Something about Senator Kaine’s “gentleman bandit” couture made the film suddenly pop into my head.

Flash-forward one week: I receive an email alerting me that Philip Borsos’ 1982 gem has undergone a 4K restoration and was premiering May 29th for a limited run via Kino-Lorber’s “Kino Marquee” platform (small world!) The studio distributes to a network of select cinemas nationwide, giving movie fans a chance to buy “tickets” and support their shuttered local art house venue by streaming through that venue’s website. Here in Seattle, the film is playing via the Grand Illusion theater’s virtual screening room; for other cities / venues click here.

Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”).

The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth (who died in 2000 at 80) brings an uncanny authenticity to the role; not only because of age-appropriate casting, but thanks to his rugged countenance (undoubtedly stemming from his previous three decades as a stuntman). Farnsworth literally looks like he stepped directly out of the 19th-Century and walked right into this film.

John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist. Miner gets out of prison and heads north to Washington state, where he lodges with his sister and her husband and finds work. The straight and narrow wears thin on the restless ex-con. He talks a dim-witted fellow worker (Wayne Robson) into traveling with him up to Canada to be his partner-in crime. As stagecoaches are a thing of the past, Miner (not unlike Butch Cassidy) intuits a bright future in robbing trains.

Eventually Miner has to cool his heels, as a dogged Pinkerton man (Gary Reineke) is hot on his trail (he’s noticed that the perpetrator of a string of train robberies in Canada has a suspiciously similar M.O. to Miner’s past stagecoach robberies in California). He and his cohort settle in a small town in British Columbia, where Miner (now living under an alias) meets and develops a relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs). Do Miner’s bad, bad ways catch up with him again? That would be telling.

Borso paints an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (along the lines of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet). The 4k restoration is gorgeous, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit.