Tag Archives: 2020 Reviews

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)

https://i1.wp.com/1.bp.blogspot.com/-IEctQefUYiw/Tn6Wh08xo4I/AAAAAAAAAZE/7WZ5J2OFC4Q/s800/The-Apartment-27.png?w=474&ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/img.jakpost.net/c/2019/08/26/2019_08_26_78568_1566791538._large.jpg?ssl=1

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.

https://i0.wp.com/images.vimooz.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/23175700/Bloody-Nose-Empty-Pocket-1024x576.jpg?resize=1024%2C576&ssl=1

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)

https://i0.wp.com/occ-0-92-1722.1.nflxso.net/dnm/api/v6/E8vDc_W8CLv7-yMQu8KMEC7Rrr8/AAAABQWSUE7T2ScNqS7d2Y9nYS9v1eIQvTe04u8nEKWtAqK4q-B3v7Rrg4wI2OjkRdhXYh7ite231evlvWKO95lMEwU255Yy.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/m.wsj.net/video/20200820/082020desertone/082020desertone_960x540.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i0.wp.com/tribecafilm-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/film/photo_1/4113/full_Tribeca_Love_Spreads_1_1080p.png?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/images.newrepublic.com/1ce39c894be525b3214997d786825818fe33c298.jpeg?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/tribecafilm-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/film/photo_2/4154/full_Tribeca_Pacified_2_1080p.png?resize=645%2C362&ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/76-days-key-still.jpg?ssl=1

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.

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)

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

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).

https://i1.wp.com/www.slashfilm.com/wp/wp-content/images/trialofthechicago7-protest-streets.jpg?ssl=1

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 the subject of documentaries and feature films in the past (like the 2008 film The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle, by focusing on a yin-yang 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 had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a “conspirators” by the government. (Full review)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn1.theyoungfolks.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/14194926/weathering-with-you.jpg?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/metro.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/PRI_164152569.jpg?quality=90&strip=all&zoom=1&resize=644%2C482&ssl=1

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)

https://resizing.flixster.com/dBbwTUSYPt_3FscVDUf-0Oi094Y=/740x380/v1.bjsxODMzNjQ7ajsxODYzMjsxMjAwOzIwNDg7MTM3MA

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)

https://i2.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/criterion-production/images/4431-c509015b50f2726a68f8672602c406fb/current_1192_147_medium.png?ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/sfc-datebook-wordpress/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/12/MER9119a7f264f50b4d5f5337b65a6a1_godfather1208-1024x691.jpg?resize=1024%2C691&ssl=1

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.

Blu-ray reissue: Funeral in Berlin (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i2.wp.com/i.pinimg.com/originals/c3/cc/d2/c3ccd2104c74e28757f25eed1d8cea9b.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Funeral in Berlin – Paramount

While I enjoy the entire series, this is my favorite entry in the film trilogy (preceded by The Ipcress File and followed by The Billion Dollar Brain) that starred Michael Caine as British spy “Harry Palmer” (based on a nameless protagonist created by prolific spy novelist and non-fiction writer Len Deighton).

Caine’s Palmer is a buttoned-down antithesis of James Bond. Oh, he has the trade craft and the cold efficiency, but no flashy clothes, cars or gadgets, no adventures in exotic locales. However, he is not buttoned-down in his attitude. He’s cheeky, cynical, and anti-authoritarian to a fault (e.g. 007 remains attuned that he ultimately serves at Her Majesty’s pleasure, whereas Harry may be more inclined to scoff at aristocracy).

In this installment (directed by Guy Hamilton and adapted from Deighton’s eponymous novel by Evan Jones), Palmer is ostensibly sent to Berlin to bring a Communist defector in from the cold but becomes embroiled in a byzantine web of international intrigue and inter-agency duplicity.

You need to pay close attention, but that’s what makes it fun and keeps you guessing until the end. Similar (but superior) to the Cold War thriller The Defector, which came out the same year and featured Montgomery Clift (in his final performance).

Paramount’s Blu-ray touts a “1080p high-definition” transfer, which leaves room for interpretation as to whether it has been restored. I can only compare it to the PAL-DVD edition I own-to which it displays a marked upgrade in image and sound. No extras, but that appears to be par for the course with Paramount. Still, it’s nice to have it on Blu-ray!

Blu-ray reissue: Five Graves to Cairo (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i2.wp.com/i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i173/fivegravestocairo1943_1024x768_10052012100322.jpg?ssl=1

Five Graves to Cairo – Kino Classics

Billy Wilder’s 1943 war drama tends to get short shrift from film scholars (understandable if held up next to Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and other heralded entries in the director’s impressive canon), but it’s solid, slam-bang “popcorn” fare for movie night.

Five Graves to Cairo was the second Hollywood feature from the Austrian-born film maker. Adapted by Wilder and Charles Brackett from the Lajos Biro play “Hotel Imperial”, it is essentially a chamber piece set in a remote hotel in the North African desert. Like Casablanca (released a year earlier), it is a contemporaneously produced WW2 adventure brimming with intrigue, selfless heroics and of course-evil Nazis.

In this case the chief villain is a real-life WW2 luminary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, played with larger-than-life aplomb by veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim (who would give his most memorable performance 7 years later in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard).

Leading man Franchot Tone portrays a wounded British tank crewman who stumbles into the hotel half-alive a few days before Rommel and his entourage arrive for a rest from the desert campaign. Anne Baxter and Akim Tamiroff round off the excellent principal cast.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 4K remaster that highlights John F. Seitz’s cinematography and an enlightening commentary track by film historian Joseph McBride.

Phones of the dead: 76 Days (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2020)

https://i1.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/76-days-key-still.jpg?ssl=1

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

— Hamlet, as he ponders the skull of a deceased friend (from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet)

Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.

— From the Epilogue title card of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Barry Lyndon.

Alas. It’s so sad, their grandma died. Oh dear, he was only 60…what a pity. Rich or poor, revered or despised-Fate befalls all. What a tragedy. Nobody can escape.

— ICU nurse in 76 Days, as she disinfects personal effects of deceased COVID patients.

You know what “they” say about death and taxes. Well…what Christopher Bullock said:

’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.

Speaking for myself (although I suspect I speak for many here), one thing I surely did not see coming was the possibility of death by plague, especially as I careen toward my 65th birthday in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century. With apologies to Douglas Adams, the mere thought hadn’t even begun to speculate about the merest possibility of crossing my mind.

Yet here we are, 10 months into a global pandemic. “Wallet, keys, mask” is now my mantra before leaving the house. It’s been some time since I reached the final stage of the Kübler-Ross model (“Acceptance”). For all I know, COVID-19 was, is, and will always be here.

But it had to start somewhere, right? According to an unpublicized report from the Chinese government, the first traceable case was in November 2019; a 55-year old citizen in Hubei province. 4 men and 5 women were reported to be infected in November; none were “patient zero”. However, the eyes of the world would soon focus on the city of Wuhan. From a New York Times piece by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. published February 28th this year:

There are two ways to fight epidemics: the medieval and the modern.

The modern way is to surrender to the power of the pathogens: Acknowledge that they are unstoppable and to try to soften the blow with 20th-century inventions, including new vaccines, antibiotics, hospital ventilators and thermal cameras searching for people with fevers.

The medieval way, inherited from the era of the Black Death, is brutal: Close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities.

For the first time in more than a century, the world has chosen to confront a new and terrifying virus with the iron fist instead of the latex glove.

At least for a while, it worked, and it might still serve a purpose.

The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was able to seal off the city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, because China is a place where a leader can ask himself, “What would Mao do?” and just do it. The bureaucracy will comply, right down to the neighborhood committees that bar anyone from returning from Wuhan from entering their own homes, even if it means sleeping in the streets.

So, putting aside for a moment any finger-wagging regarding totalitarian vs democratic societies, or the ethics of “medieval vs modern” methods in dealing with dire public health emergencies…how did Wuhan do? Here’s an recap from CNN, published in April 2020:

Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, reopened this month after a 76-day lockdown.

“People are visiting parks, markets, malls. On the roads there are many cars,” said Hector Retamal, a photojournalist with Agence France-Presse. “I have seen people who go swimming in the Yangtze River, other people dancing in a park. No big crowds yet, but step by step the life is returning to the city.”

The tough measures that were put in place — most people couldn’t even go grocery shopping or bury their dead — seem to have worked. New coronavirus cases, which used to number in the thousands each day, have slowed to a trickle.

Wuhan didn’t do too badly, considering they got the virus under control within 3 months, whereas here in the U.S. some 7 months later, COVID continues to rage…with impunity.

But that transition from initial mandatory lockdown to a virtually COVID-free city didn’t occur in a vacuum, nor was it facilitated by the wave of a magic wand. What exactly went down during those 76 days? What was it like to be a citizen of Wuhan during this period?

A remarkable documentary called 76 Days fills in some of the blanks. Released by MTV Films, it was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous” (the choice of anonymity by one of the trio indicates this project was likely not sanctioned by Chinese authorities).

Filmed during the early days of the 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, the film was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists (Weixi Chen and Anonymous) and their small camera crews.

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. Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach (there’s no narration).

One thing that gets lost in the politicization and finger-pointing surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is the ongoing human cost; and nothing hammers it home like the film’s powerful and affecting opening scene, where a distraught woman (a hospital worker in full PPE) has to be restrained by fellow medical personnel as her deceased father is wheeled out of the ICU, zipped up in a body bag.

“I’ll never see my Papa again! I want to listen to my Papa sing!” she keens as her father is whisked off to the morgue.Her compatriots are sympathetic, but remind her that she must stay strong for the sake of fellow hospital staff and all of the patients in their care. The 3-minute sequence is heartbreaking and sobering.

A harrowing scene in the ER admittance area could be from a zombie apocalypse film. People are pounding on the door and wrenching on the handle. Hospital workers keep the door locked, straining against it to keep the pressing mob of anxious souls on the other side at bay as they attempt to let in only several patients at a time.

The filmmakers follow the progress of a number of patients, from their admittance to their release (or fate). One particularly truculent elderly fisherman is so reticent to be hospitalized he keeps his cap and coat on even as he is tucked into bed by the orderly.

Afflicted by the early stages of dementia, he wanders the halls at night like a Flying Dutchman, delivering soliloquies. “How could it have come to this? This place is not bad. Free medication and hot meals,” he muses aloud to no one in particular as he shuffles along. When he reaches the end of the hall, he tugs at the doors. “It’s locked? I need to get out, to go home. Can someone please just let me go? Who doesn’t have a home? Why can’t I go home?

A pregnant woman undergoes a C-section, but has a negative antibody test prior to the birth, so she and her husband must quarantine for 2 weeks before she can hold her newborn for the first time. Following the progress of the baby girl (affectionately nicknamed “Little Penguin” by the attending ward staff) becomes a much-needed beacon of hope in the film.

The compassion and dedication of the attending staff shines throughout. “Your family is not here. So we are your family now,” a nurse assures one elderly patient in a touching moment. “You are all fearless soldiers,” marvels one tearful patient to a hospital worker.

If there is a “philosopher” of the film, it’s the nurse who spends a portion of each day notifying next of kin (you wonder how she absorbs all that grief from the other end of the call). She is determined to return personal items to families of the deceased.

“Perhaps when the epidemic is over, we’ll find ways to return them to families. To keep them…perhaps…as mementos,” she offers, as she disinfects cell phones, watches, and such. One basket is labeled “ID CARDS AND PHONES OF THE DEAD”. One cell phone beeps and reads “31 UNREAD MESSAGES”.

So what is the takeaway? Granted, the question could be “Why buy a movie ticket to wallow in more COVID misery when all I need do is turn on the news to get it for free?” For me, it gets back to that “medieval vs. modern” conundrum.

It’s wonderful that we have dedicated front-line health workers all over the world to treat the symptoms, but their number is finite. More often than not they are over-worked, and hospital capacities are maxed out with existing COVID patients. What will it take to finally eradicate the cause?

Would it kill our democracy to get just a little “medieval” on COVID’s ass, just this once?

Since 9-11 it’s become reflexive for travelers to dutifully remove shoes and belts and unpack and repack carry-on luggage before boarding a plane, but being asked to wear a mask on a long crowded flight in the midst of a pandemic crosses the line of “oppression” for some? Can all Americans be convinced to make this temporary sacrifice of personal comfort for the common good?

*Sigh* Probably not. Donald G. McNeil, Jr. from the same New York Times piece above:

China has had imperial rule since 221 B.C. The United States, born of rebellion, prizes individual rights.

There will be no national lockdown. No threats to have anyone “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame,” as one of Mr. Xi’s underlings warned those who hid cases of infection.

But local control — and the political factionalism that is endemic to democracy — can carry grave risks in the face of a crisis, [medical historian Dr. Howard Markel] noted.

In 1918 and 1919, as the Spanish influenza swept across the country in waves, various cities reacted in their own ways.

Cities like St. Louis that reacted quickly — canceling parades and ballgames, shutting schools, transit systems and government offices, ordering the sick to stay home — ultimately had fewer deaths.

In cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which were paralyzed by political feuds or pressure from local businesses to avoid shutdowns, many more ultimately died.

To overcome the divisiveness that would imperil a cohesive national response, Dr. Markel said, “you need leadership from the top — and there has to be trust. In an epidemic, the idea that ‘everyone is entitled to their own facts’ is really dangerous.”

More prophetic words have rarely been written. One thing lacking since the pandemic blew up in March is “leadership from the top”. (To paraphrase General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove: “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books.”)

It’s great news that major pharmaceutical companies could begin distributing vaccines in a few weeks, but it will still be months before enough of the population is inoculated to flatten the curve (hopefully) for good. That means there has to be trust in what epidemiological experts are advising us to do in the meantime to keep everyone safe.

And hopefully the incoming administration, which is already demonstrating a desire and willingness to coordinate a better-late-than-never “cohesive national response” to the pandemic can hit the ground running and send COVID-19 packing once and for all.

(“76 Days” is currently playing in virtual cinemas nationwide)

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

https://i0.wp.com/bamlive.s3.amazonaws.com/styles/program_slide/s3/Borsos_Grey-Fox_004_1200.jpg?ssl=1

The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. 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; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

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. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, 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. (Full review)