Tag Archives: 2020 Reviews

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 20, 2021)

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Note: Monday marks 58 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday.

I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the gym for an all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that flourish to this day.

Then there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely …forthcoming.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (Condon also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (apolitical) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between byzantine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark comedy.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is an upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 hostage drama/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as John Baron, the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town (interestingly, the role of John Baron was originally offered to Montgomery Clift).

The film is essentially a chamber piece; the assassins commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot at their intended target. In this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t give me that politics jazz-it’s not my racket!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

Also in the cast: Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Christopher Dark, and Paul Frees (Frees would later become known as “the man of a thousand voices” for his voice-over work with Disney, Jay Ward Productions, Rankin/Bass and other animation studios).

Some aspects of the film are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

There have been conflicting stories over the years whether Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation following Kennedy’s death; the definitive answer may lie in remarks made by Frank Sinatra, Jr., in a commentary track he did for a 2012 Blu-ray reissue of the film:

[Approximately 2 weeks] after the assassination of President Kennedy, a minor network official at ABC television decided he was going to run “Suddenly” on network television. This, while the people were still grieving and numbed from the horror of the death of President Kennedy. When word of this reached Sinatra, he was absolutely incensed…one of the very few times had I ever seen him that angry. He got off a letter to the head of broadcasting at ABC, telling them that they should be jailed; it was in such bad taste to do that after the death of President Kennedy.

Sinatra, Jr. does not elaborate any further, so I interpret that to mean that Frank, Sr. fired off an angry letter, and the fact that the film remains in circulation to this day would indicate that it was never actually “pulled” (of course, you are free to concoct your own conspiracy theory).

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. Some of the Cold War references have dated; others (as it turns out) are oddly timely…evidenced as recently as this past week.

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.

Frankly, the premise is more intriguing than the film (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian De Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape.

The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “De Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 11, 2021)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Earlier today, my brother posted this on Facebook:

While going through my father’s stuff after his passing we found a large stack of envelopes. They turned out to be letters from junior high students thanking him for the talk he gave the students on Veteran’s Day. It turned out there were over 14 packed envelopes. One for every Veteran’s Day he spoke with the students. My brothers and I were very close to throwing these out with many of the other miscellaneous papers in my Dad’s cabinets but, without even looking at the contents I decided to keep them. I finally opened them up today and started going through them.

I used to kid my late father about being a pack rat but I am grateful that he was. I recall him telling me about giving classroom talks as part of his work with a local Vietnam Veteran’s group, but today was the first time I have ever seen one of those letters. I remember listening to those cassettes he sent us during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

That mention of the Secret Service refers to the 1968 Presidential campaign. Our family was stationed near Dayton, Ohio that year. For the first 17 years of his military service, my dad was an E.O.D. (Explosive Ordinance Detachment) specialist. Whenever presidential candidates came through the area, members of his unit would work with the Secret Service to help sweep venues for explosive devices in preparation for rallies and speeches.

I remember that he helped prepare for appearances by Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. I remember him showing me a special pin that he had to wear, which would indicate to Secret Service agents that he had security clearance (I’m sure they are still stashed away in one of those boxes).

Today happens to be Veteran’s Day, but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. In honor of the holiday, here are my top 10 picks for films that deal with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par.

Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion).

Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza.

I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself” before I could leave the theater. No film has ever affected me quite like that.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Over time I’ve come to view it more as a black comedy; largely attributable to its prescience regarding our current political climate.…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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

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

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

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Stop-Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio. A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran.

Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter when attempting to understand what snaps inside the mind of those who carry their war experiences home.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in Afghanistan . After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which gets pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. He is ordered home to face charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep heart and soul together while maintaining as much “normalcy” she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

To learn how you can help vets, visit the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site .

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)

[Scary] Mask Required: 13 movies for Halloween!

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 30, 2021)

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(With apologies to Rod Serling for my frightfully tacky paraphrasing) Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of 13 films. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a celluloid canvas, streaming in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare. And …Happy Halloween!

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Beauty and the Beast (1946) – Out of myriad movie adaptations of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version remains the most soulful and poetic. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was made by a director who literally had the soul of a poet (Cocteau’s day job, in case you didn’t know). The film is a triumph of production design, with inventive visuals (photographed by Henri Alekan).

Jean Marais is affecting as The Beast, paralyzed by unrequited passion for beautiful Belle (Josette Day). This version is a surreal fairy tale not necessarily made with the kids in mind (especially with all the psycho-sexual subtexts). The timeless moral of the original tale, however, is still simple enough for a child to grasp: It’s what’s inside that counts.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens (co-creator of The Avengers TV series). Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) assist a physician in investigating a mysterious malady befalling the residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging.

The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro. The film was released at the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why Clemens seems to be doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

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Don’t Look Now – This is a difficult film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth) stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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Ed Wood – Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they are surely joined at the hip by now. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality.

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public in the late 50s.

While there are lots of belly laughs, there’s no punching downward at Wood and his decidedly off-beat collaborators; in a way the film is a love letter to outsider film makers. Martin Landau steals his scenes with a droll, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Also with Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones.

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I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 80 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake.

She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man – Always remember, never mix your drinks. And, as we learn from Jack Arnold’s 1957 sci-fi classic, you should never mix radiation exposure with insecticide…because that will make you shrink, little by little, day by day. That’s what happens to Everyman Grant Williams (Scott Carey), much to the horror of his wife (Randy Stuart) and his stymied doctors.

Unique for its time in that it deals primarily with the emotional, rather than fantastical aspect of the hapless protagonist’s transformation. To be sure, the film has memorable set-pieces (particularly Grant’s chilling encounters with a spider and his own house cat), but there is more emphasis on how the dynamics of the couple’s relationship changes as Grant becomes more diminutive.  The denouement presages the existential finale of The Quiet Earth.

In the fullness of time, some have gleaned sociopolitical subtext in Richard Matheson’s screenplay; or at least a subtle thumb in the eye of 1950s conformity. Matheson adapted from his novel. He also wrote the popular I Am Legend (adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth , The Omega Man  and the eponymous 2007 film).

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The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – “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 Rocky Horror Picture Show – Speaking of Fay Wray…46 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings.

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Rosemary’s Baby“He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this devilish 1968 metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to Rosemary’s chagrin). Her nightmare is only beginning.

No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Shout – This unsettling 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Robert Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. The late John Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological horror and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (which would make a great double-bill) this one is in your wheelhouse.

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SiestaSiesta – Depending on who you ask, Mary Lambert’s 1987 thriller is either a compelling riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…or an unfinished film in search of a narrative. It was not well received by critics, but has a modest cult following, of which I am a card-carrying member.

Ellen Barkin stars as an American daredevil who wakes up on a deserted runway in Spain, dazed, bruised and confused. As she wanders about getting her bearings, pieces of her memory return. She encounters assorted characters in increasingly weird scenarios. The film lies somewhere between Carnival of Souls and Memento.

The interesting cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, and Jodie Foster. Patricia Louisiana Knop (9½ Weeks) adapted the screenplay from Patrice Chaplin’s novel. Atmospheric score by Miles Davis.

Unfortunately, the film is out-of-print and not streaming, but I found this UCLA Film & Television Preservation Archive forum from 2019 featuring director Lambert, Ellen Barkin and Jodie Foster discussing the film at a screening (caution: spoilers!). I hope that the mention of a restored print indicates a Blu-ray reissue is in the offing.

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Ugetsu Monogatari – Kenji Mizoguchi’s eerie 1953 ghost story/morality tale was adapted from several short stories by 18th-Century writer and poet Ueda Akinari.

The story is set in 16th-Century Japan, in the midst of one of the civil wars of the era. A potter of modest means and grandiose financial schemes (Masayuki Mori) and his n’er do well brother (Eitaro Ozawa) who fantasizes about becoming a renowned samurai warrior ignore the dire warnings of a local sage and allow their greed and ambition to take full hold, which leads to tragic consequences for their abandoned wives (Mitsuko Mito and Kinuyo Tanaka).

Beautifully acted; particularly strong performances by the three female leads (Mito, Tanaka, and the great Machiko Kyo as the sorceress Lady Wakasa). It’s a slow-burning tale, but if you just give it time the emotional wallop of the denouement will floor you.

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Young Frankenstein – Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side.

Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring a non-billed Gene Hackman (as an old blind hermit) is a classic.

This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2021)

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Well, better late than never:

President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.

The day will be observed Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. While Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples, Biden’s announcement appeared to catch many by surprise. […]

“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.

Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Native populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other wealth, including people to enslave.

“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

With that in mind, here are 10 worthwhile films in honor of Indigenous People’s Day.

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Arctic Son — I first saw this documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 film Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.

Stanley, Jr. was raised in Washington State by his single mom. Consequently, he is more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territories. The initially wary young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

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Dead Man — Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering (beautifully photographed by the late Robby Müller).

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with an enigmatic Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic quality. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

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The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the uproar and unsavory behavioral changes the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful community, Xi treks to “the edge of the world” to give the troublesome object back to the gods. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in an endearing fashion.

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies.

A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, and realistic character study is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding in the lead, as a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity,

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Powwow Highway —A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with a blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off and is waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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This May Be the Last Time — Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as both history lesson and a moving personal journey.

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Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David  Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can.

Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.

Getting better all the time (can’t get no worse): A New Year’s mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2020)

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If there is one Tweet that encapsulates 2020, it’s this gem from Albert Brooks:

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m debating whether I should dress up and go into the kitchen…or phone a pizza. I do have my tunes picked out, so enjoy. Happy New Year!

“Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

“1921” – The WhoGot a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year. It has to be, Pete. It has to be.

“Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

“New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” But it’s still a great song.

“Celtic New Year” – Van Morrison – Speaking of Ireland: Van the Man! If I don’t see you through the week, see you through the window…

“Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

“Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer solo by Elliot Randall.

“New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

If you really must pry: Top 10 Films of 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2020)

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As the year closes, it’s time to pick the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2020. In a “normal” year, I usually watch and review between 50 and 60 first-run features and documentaries. This year, the tally was…substantially lower. 2020 was challenging for a movie critic (well…at least speaking for myself, as a low-rung player). Anyway (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Boogie Nights), that’s an “M.P.” (My Problem), not a “Y.P.” (Your Problem). Per usual my picks are listed alphabetically, not by rank.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Anyone who has ever spent a few hours down the pub knows there are as many descriptive terms for “drunks” as the Inuits have for “snow” . Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…et.al. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in this extraordinary (and controversial) genre-defying Sundance hit.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. (Full review)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – So how did the world become (to quote from one of Paddy Cheyefsky’s classic monologues in Network) “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

Justin Pemberton’s timely documentary (based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty) tackles those kind of questions. Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. (Full review)

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Desert One – In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back 53 American citizens held hostage in Iran. It did not end well. The failed mission also likely ended Carter’s already waning chances of winning a second term as President.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Carter. An eye-opening documentary. (Full review)

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Love Spreads – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, and Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection) is right in that wheelhouse. “Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs.

The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat). Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, (with a dash of Love and Mercy), bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and some catchy original songs. (Full review)

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Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always – Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s timely drama centers on 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) , a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder). They both work part-time as grocery clerks in rural Pennsylvania (a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided). After a decidedly unhelpful visit to her local “crisis pregnancy center” and a harrowing failed attempt to self-induce an abortion, Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds and hop a bus to New York City.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. She does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate. This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be; it is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.(Full review)

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Pacified – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil make a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection). A cross between The King of New York and City of God, it takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians. (Full review)

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76 Days – Filmed during the early days of the Coronavirus epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, this remarkable documentary was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous”.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months (it was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists and their small camera crews). Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach.

I know it seems perverse to include this in my top 10 for a year where movies serve as one of the few respites from the real-life horror of the pandemic; nonetheless, 76 Days must be acknowledged as a timely, humanistic, and essential document. (Full review)

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Tommaso – Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s drama is the latest descendant of Fellini’s ; although it offers a less fanciful and more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is no exception.

He is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife and 3 year-old daughter. At first glance, he leads an idyllic existence. However, it soon becomes evident there is trouble in Paradise. Again, it’s familiar territory, but worth the the price of admission 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. (Full review).

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

While the trial has been covered in  previous documentaries and feature films (like The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle – focusing on a clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants. While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before they were all  indicted together and prosecuted en masse as “conspirators”. (Full review)

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Weathering With You – Here’s a question somewhat unique to 2020: Do you remember the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I do. It was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film. Little did I suspect that it would come to hold such a special place in my memory…for reasons outside of the film itself. I’ll admit I had some problems with the narrative, which may bring into question why its in my top 10 . That said, I concluded my review thusly:

Still, there’s a lot to like about “Weathering  With You”, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

I have since seen it again, twice (I bought the Blu-ray). Like many of Shinkai’s films, it improves with subsequent viewings. Besides, there’s no law against modifying your initial impression of a movie. That’s my modified opinion, and I’m sticking to it. (Full review)

…and just for giggles

Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing film reviews here at Digby’s (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

Such a clatter: A holiday mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2020)

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Don’t panic. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have assembled 12 fine selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts for your Xmas creel. Merry Crimble to you and yours…and stay safe!

All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs

The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by their a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! Anyway, this is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.

Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder

There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.

Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe

As wry and tuneful as ever at age 71, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is way overdue.

Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus

Despite the fact that he has an ability to write hooky, jangly Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by many cult-ish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome).

Christmas Wish – NRBQ

NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for high-energy, crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This one is from their eponymous 2007 album.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke

In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above (no photo). In the 50 years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists everywhere, introducing the world to a gifted player with a uniquely syncopated, expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.

River – Joni Mitchell

Not exactly a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and her lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. An oft-covered song, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.

Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins

Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.

Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.

My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.

Santa Claus – The Sonics

“I wanna brand new car / a twangy guitar”. These proto-punkers are local legends in my neck of the woods. Hailing from Tacoma in the early 60s, The Sonics are now generally acknowledged as major forefathers for the Seattle grunge scene of the late 80s-early 90s.

Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite

“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/former DJ Binky Griptite (ex-member of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s classic “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.

A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior

Not a Christmas song per se, but it suggests a cozy holiday scenario right from Verse 1:

Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.

A beautiful and evocative track from a woefully underappreciated UK prog-rock outfit.

‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong

The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.

Bonus track!

Memorable SNL Christmas show performance by the Foo Fighters, with a surprise coda.

Blu-ray reissue: An Unmarried Woman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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An Unmarried Woman – Criterion Collection

I was overjoyed to learn this 1978 career high from the late writer-director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, Tempest, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moscow on the Hudson) was getting the Criterion treatment, because it is ripe for rediscovery.

Jill Clayburgh delivers a tour-de-force performance as an upscale Manhattanite who works at an art gallery. One day she meets her Wall Street broker husband of 16 years (Michael Murphy) for lunch, after which he suddenly and unexpectedly creates a public scene, blubbering and blurting out he has fallen in love with another woman.

Clayburgh’s reaction, as she reels first from shock, then goes from pain to anger to physical revulsion (within about 30 seconds) remains one of the best moments of acting I’ve ever seen. That’s just the warm-up for Clayburgh’s journey of emotional recovery and independence, which in retrospect is deeply rooted in the “self-actualization” movement of the 1970s.

Clayburgh was nominated for an Oscar, which she would have clinched in a less competitive year (she was up against Geraldine Page, Ingrid Bergman, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda). Brilliantly written, directed, and acted. Outstanding support from Alan Bates, Cliff Gorman, Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller and a scene-stealing 16 year-old Lisa Lucas.

Criterion’s Blu-ray has a restored 4K transfer. Extras include insightful and enlightening 2005 audio commentary by Mazursky and Clayburgh (although it makes you sad that they are no longer with us…both come across as such warm and generous creative spirits).

In one interesting anecdote, Mazursky talks about initially offering Jane Fonda the part. Fonda read the script, then turned it down with a comment to the effect that she was only interested in films that make a political statement (she had also already committed to working on Coming Home).

Sometime after the film came out, Fonda reached out to him and said she was sorry she had turned down the role, because after seeing it she realized An Unmarried Woman is very political, especially in light of its empowering feminist message.

There are also new interviews with Michael Murphy and Lisa Lucas, as well as a new interview with author Sam Wasson on Mazursky’s work. Excellent package…A+!

Blu-ray reissue: The Hit (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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The Hit – Criterion Collection

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

Criterion’s Blu-ray delivers a noticeable upgrade in image quality (the transfer was approved by DP Mike Molloy). Audio commentary from Criterion’s 2009 DVD has been ported over, featuring director Stephen Frears, actors Hurt and Roth, screenwriter Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley. Extras include an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

Blu-ray reissue: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Just when I thought I was out…Francis Ford Coppola pulls me back in for a third (fourth?) dip into my wallet for the “definitive” cut of the film formerly known as The Godfather Part III.

In a short video intro on the Blu-ray, Coppola justifies his subtle re-cut thusly: “You’ll see a film that has a different beginning, has a different ending. Many scenes throughout have been re-positioned; and the picture has been given I think a new life…which does, in fact, act as illumination of what [The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II] meant.”

So, has all been illuminated? In the interest of fairness (and being that I was aware of the release date for the Blu-ray) I re-watched The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II recently (probably the 50th time) so that all the motifs would be fresh in my mind before diving into this slightly reshuffled “new” coda. I admit that I have more often than not binge-watched “I” and “II” without feeling compelled to revisit “III” (no thanks I’m full).

The result of watching the new cut with somewhat “fresh” eyes is that it is not as “bad” as I remember (“bad” intended as relative in the context that “I” and “II” constitute the greatest gangster saga in film history, making it a hard act to “coda”-even for its creator). On the other hand, it still doesn’t elevate the film to the masterpiece status of its prequels.

First let’s dispense with the snarky quips about Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary that have tainted the film for years. If anything, her “non-actor” reading of the character renders her proto-mumblecore performance as naturalistic; after all, could she help being a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player who was playing a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player?

Frankly, what I find most distracting performance-wise in III is her Aunt Talia Shire’s tendency to overact…with her hands. For whatever reason, Shire (reprising her role as Michael’s sister Connie) made an odd acting choice to gesticulate wildly in nearly every scene (I know Italians have a rep for “talking with their hands” …but Shire overdoes it).

Nits aside, the refurbished cut holds up well. Of the changes he made, Coppola’s repositioning of one particular scene to the beginning was the wisest, because it works as a visual and thematic callback to the opening moments of the original Godfather. All in all, it is as satisfying a “coda” for the saga one could expect within a relatively scant 2½ hour running time (considering I and II total hours of narrative to wrap up).

The transfer on Paramount’s Blu-ray is stunning in image and sound quality (both elements are newly restored). There are no extras (aside from Coppola’s 2 minute long introductory spiel) but I’m sure there will be a super-deluxe bells and whistles edition at some point. If you’re a fan of the trilogy (who isn’t?) I think you’ll be pleased.