Tag Archives: 2020 Reviews

Breaking Point: After Parkland (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/51b89491e4b03168d3436df5/1560270420964-VLR7KWY5WZMCL7KO3NXM/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kFTEgwhRQcX9r3XtU0e50sUUqsxRUqqbr1mOJYKfIPR7LoDQ9mXPOjoJoqy81S2I8N_N4V1vUb5AoIIIbLZhVYxCRW4BPu10St3TBAUQYVKcW7uEhC96WQdj-SwE5EpM0lAopPba9ZX3O0oeNTVSRxdHAmtcci_6bmVLoSDQq_pb/after+parkland+1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1The above Tweets were posted in the wake of President Trump’s State of the Union address last Tuesday. The gentleman who posted them was Fred Guttenberg, who was commenting on the incident that got him handcuffed and escorted out of the chamber.

Mr. Guttenberg is an outspoken gun reform activist. His daughter Jamie was one of the students who was killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

From The Washington Post:

Clad in his trademark orange tie and ribbon, the guest of honor had reached his breaking point.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of slain Parkland student Jaime Guttenberg, simmered with anger during President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Trump discussed immigrants who committed crimes and declared that “human life is a sacred gift from God.”

Guttenberg thought something was missing. What about people killed by gun violence like his daughter, killed in a massacre at her high school in Florida? He leaned over to a fellow guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and said he was on the verge of losing it.

And when Trump said gun rights were “under siege all across our country,” Guttenberg did lose it, he said, and shouted about victims like Jamie.

“My emotions were stewing,” Guttenberg, 54, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, hours after he says he was handcuffed and detained by Capitol Police. “I was so upset.”

He roared at the tail end of an applause line from Trump, who said, “So long as I am president, I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

In a 2018 post that I wrote in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I opened with this excerpt from a previous 2016 post that I had written in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago, this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

It was déjà vu all over again. Further down in the piece, I wrote:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

So where are we at today, in the two years since a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Stoneman Douglas High, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in just 6 minutes? According to a 2019 AP story, a report issued in February of last year by a student journalism project “…concluded that  1,149 children and teenagers died from a shooting in the year since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” citing that the stats cover “school shootings, domestic violence cases, drug homicides and by stray bullets”. Mind you, nearly another year has passed since that report was released.

And that’s just children and teenagers. The mass shootings and other incidents involving gun violence occur with such frequency in the U.S. that it’s no wonder the “adults” who make the laws and run the country can’t seem to block out the time to actually “do” anything about it, what with all the “thoughts and prayers” that must be attended to first.

Perhaps that explains why it’s “the children” (for whom legislators always claim they’re “doing this for”) who have taken the lead, like Parkland survivors-turned activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Hogg and fellow survivor-activist Samuel Zeif are among those profiled in the new documentary After Parkland (on Hulu beginning February 19).

Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, the film also spotlights activist parents of Parkland victims, like Manuel Oliver (who lost his son Joaquin) and Andrew Pollack (who lost his daughter Meadow). The parents may not be in lockstep on legislative priorities (e.g. Pollack has become a “go-to” guest on Fox due to his more reactionary take on the mass shooting epidemic) but share an anguish no parent should have to suffer.

Politics take a back seat; this could be a deal-breaker for some on either “side” who may go in with expectations of polemical reinforcement. Instead, Taguchi and Lefferman (who filmed in the spring, summer and fall of 2018) have aimed for a candid yet still mindfully respectful portrait of how each family navigates all the inevitable stages of grief, culminating in the impassioned activism that we’ve all seen in the media coverage.

While After Parkland succeeds in conveying the emotional fallout left in the aftermath of tragedy, it becomes a bit repetitious; I think the directors’ decision to remain apolitical ultimately neuters the impact.

The most powerful moments are in the beginning, which contains a collage of real-time cell phone audio of the Parkland incident. The chilling sounds of automatic gunfire and students screaming in pain and terror made me think of the Martin Luther King quote ” Wait has always meant Never ”. If every lawmaker was locked in chambers and forced to listen to that audio on a continuous loop until they passed sensible gun reform, perhaps they would all finally reach their breaking point.

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Special note: On February 12th, there will be hosted screenings of “After Parkland” in over 100 cities in the U.S. to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Parkland shootings. The screenings are part of a nationwide “Day of Conversation” about gun reform, sponsored by organizations like March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and The League of Women Voters. To locate a February 12th screening near you, or to learn more about the Demand Film project and how you can organize screenings in your city, click here. DH

 

The ragman’s son: RIP Kirk Douglas

By Dennis Hartley

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Kirk Douglas December 9, 1916-February 5, 2020

This one hurts. Not a shocker at age 103. But still…this one hurts. Beyond a legend…last of a breed. Where do I even begin?

In his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas wrote:

The biggest lie is the lie we tell ourselves in the distorted visions we have of ourselves, blocking out some sections, enhancing others. What remains are not the cold facts of life, but how we perceive them. That’s really who we are.

An astute and particularly self-aware observation for an actor to make.  After all, you could say that actors “lie” for a living, always pretending to be someone they are not; “blocking out some sections, enhancing others” to best serve the character.  That said, the best actors are those who can channel this human flaw into a superpower that brings us face-to-face with “the cold facts of life” when necessary and reveal universal truths about “who we are”.

Kirk Douglas could do that with a glance, a gesture, a shrug. He was a very physical actor, but you had a sense there was a carefully calibrated intelligence informing every glance, every gesture, every shrug.

He played heroes and villains with equal elan but injected all of his characters with a relatable humanity.  He was one of the last players standing from the echelon of “classic” Hollywood…a true movie star.

I hope the Academy does him justice with a worthy tribute Sunday night. He deserves one. Ru in shlum, Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

Ultimately, the work speaks for itself.  There are so many great Douglas films, but here are 15 “must-sees” available right now via cable on-demand and rentals  (this is based on my Xfinity package; so depending  on your subscriptions, “results may vary”-as they say).

Spartacus (HITZ on demand)

Paths of Glory (ScreenPix on demand)

Ace in the Hole (Paramount PPV)

Lust for Life (Xfinity PPV)

Seven Days in May (Warner Brothers PPV)

Out of the Past (Warner Brothers PPV)

Lonely Are the Brave (Universal PPV)

Detective Story (Paramount PPV)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (STARZ on demand)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (EPIX, Prime Video, tubi)

Young Man With a Horn (Warner Brothers PPV)

The Bad and the Beautiful (Xfinity PPV)

Two Weeks in Another Town (TCM on demand)

I Walk Alone (Paramount PPV)

The Man From Snowy RIver (STARZ on demand)

Viral videos: 10 movies you never want to catch

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 1, 2020)

https://s2.reutersmedia.net/resources/r/?m=02&d=20200130&t=2&i=1483592981&w=780&fh=&fw=&ll=&pl=&sq=&r=2020-01-30T191508Z_14083_MRPRC2DQE9YESFR_RTRMADP_0_CHINA-HEALTHEerily deserted street in Wuhan, China this week (via Reuters)

This city is being closed off in a way that China has never done before — or even any other major modern city, really, hasn’t done it in recent times. [The Chinese government] quickly expanded it to not just Wuhan, but to other cities, so that there were tens of millions of people who were essentially forced to stay at home and not allowed to go out. They’ve just put in place the biggest lockdown that we’ve ever seen and what experts are saying is the biggest experiment in public health that they’ve ever seen.

That may read like a film treatment for an apocalyptic thriller, but it’s from a January 30th NPR broadcast of the New York Times-produced program The Daily. The comment was made by New York Times overseas reporter Javier Hernandez, who was being interviewed by the show’s host, Michael Barbaro. Hernandez was giving a chilling account as to what has been happening on the ground in China in the wake of the outbreak of Coronavirus. Barbaro followed Hernandez’s comment with this observation:

It’s hard to imagine most any other country being able to mount that kind of a response. I mean, I’m just trying to fathom an American city somehow being locked down.

[Hernandez] So this is what it looks like when China’s authoritarian system is in full force. There’s no choice for people to leave. Many people are stuck there. They are going to hospitals that are overcrowded, but they can’t get the health care they need. Doctors are complaining about a lack of medical supplies and critical items like masks and goggles. And you get the sense that people are kind of stuck with what they have, and that’s the bargain they’ve made by living in this system. They have no choice but to follow the government’s orders. They can’t push back. They can’t swim against the current here. Everyone’s essentially forced to comply with this mass lockdown. […]

China has built this system, this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party, you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad, you are the one who is going to take responsibility. You are the one who is going to fall. And this has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news. […]

[Barbaro] So by the time something like, say, a medical crisis gets really big, it may be too late for the local officials who have been trying to contain it themselves and keep it from Beijing.

[Hernandez] Exactly. These kinds of dynamics played a huge role in the scale of the SARS outbreak. It was clear in this case that local officials knew exactly what was going on. They knew that people were dying of this illness. But for months and months, they didn’t want to report it up the chain. Instead, they tried to cover it up. They tried to see if they could perhaps deal with it secretly, and maybe nobody would ever find out about it. They hoped that Beijing would know about it. But eventually it broke. […]

[Barbaro] So that [culture of covering up] had trickled down all the way to the frontline health care workers, who are supposed to be treating this and sounding the alarm.

 [Hernandez] Right. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out. And when you think about where this virus might be headed next — to other provinces, to other cities — you have to wonder if these same dynamics would be playing out again. If people will stay silent, if they will not report official cases, because they fear for their jobs and they fear for their livelihoods. […]

And so when you look at the culture, you wonder whether China can actually contain these viruses, whether we will continue to live in a world where the internal politics of the party are going to put lives around the world in danger.

Well, that’s not very…reassuring.

Of course, China is not the source of every virus outbreak. And now that the coronavirus has officially been declared a “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization, finger-pointing should be the last thing on the agenda. Health officials worldwide have mobilized, necessary precautions are being taken wherever practical, and scientific research has begun in earnest regarding the possible development of a vaccine.

In the meantime, wash your hands, eat your Wheaties, and then wash your hands again. Oh…and did you hear that the Doomsday Clock is now at 100 seconds to midnight? With those cheery thoughts in mind, here’s a few “viral” films you might want to, erm…catch:

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The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of all? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by screenwriter Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. The team is essentially restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this one a nail-biter from start to finish.

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Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2020…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem  immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”).

Screenwriter Dario Poloni blurs the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. Whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is that simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

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Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takes the network narrative formula that propelled his film Traffic and applies it to this cautionary vision of sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.

However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues.

By reining in his powerhouse cast and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it “real” (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering exercise.

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The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a NYC smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller.

Patient Zero is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City.

A montage depicting how city officials administer the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a health department worker offers a shot to one distrustful fellow, he says “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).

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The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 Will Smith version).

In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a ass-kicking babe in the Pam Grier mold.

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Panic in the Streets– While this is another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year- a little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).

Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald. Look for Zero Mostel in one of his earliest roles, and Jack Palance (this was his big-screen debut).

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Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have an indeterminate amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily a “death sentence”.

The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they (naturally) begin to fall in love (insert metaphor here; or as the old Burt Bacharach and Hal David song goes – “…you get enough germs to catch pneumonia.”).

What makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre is that while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question becomes not “can humanity be saved in time?” …but rather “can humanity make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”

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Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to avail himself of the perks at his disposal.

Court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes twists and turns, ultimately bringing him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude of the film gives you a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague in that era.

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Twelve Monkeys– Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of humanity. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he a delusional schizophrenic living in the year 1996? I’m not telling.

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28 Days Later– Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.

In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man, a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is in reality not “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way).

The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary.

Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.

Ten years gone: Top 10 films of the last decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 25, 2020)

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Really? Another decade slipped by again when I wasn’t looking? This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the 400+ first-run films I reviewed between 2010 and 2019 and share my picks for the top 10 of the past 10 years. Happy viewing! Alphabetically…

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

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

(Full review)

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Blade Runner: 2049 So many films passing themselves off as “sci-fi” these days are needlessly loud and jarringly flash-cut. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story is not as deep or complex as the film makers want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90-minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing and immersive. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

(Full review)

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Certified Copy – Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve-ball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture.

(Full review)

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Computer Chess – The most original sci-fi film of 2013 proved you don’t need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people’s minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to watch. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird…then weirder. Dig that final shot!

(Full review)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of  writer-director Wes Anderson. To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession. I kind of enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to Anderson’s previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

(Full review)

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Love and Mercy – Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years.

(Full review)

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The Master – As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take-down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver a pair of knockout performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull.

(Full review)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam. What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

(Full review)

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Samsara – Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity.

(Full review)

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed, and cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

(Full review)

 

 

 

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

Just drifting: R.I.P. Buck Henry

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?

Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.

Mr. Braddock: Why?

Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.

Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?

Benjamin: No.

Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Benjamin: You got me.

– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast.  He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).

Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.

For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria, Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).

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Candy As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.

What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.

Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.

Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.

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Catch-22

Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.

Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.

Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet…Buck Henry did a pretty good job of condensing it into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a great director (Mike Nichols) and such a fabulous cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50-year-old film has improved with age.

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Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).

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The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.

Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).

This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).

Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

Note: Kermet Apio is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with in my stand-up days.  Not unlike foreign correspondents, road comics get a firsthand take as to what’s happening “on the ground” anywhere their job takes them. Kermet shared some thoughts regarding the current situation between the U.S. and Iran in a Facebook post today. With his permission, I am re-publishing it here. -Dennis Hartley

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I have been incredibly lucky to have performed in the Middle East twice in the last few years. Travel cuts through all the media sound bites. When you spend time with people and learn about their culture, their history, their foods, and their joys, THEY become your definition of that country. You shake your head at the propaganda because you saw with your own eyes human beings who were kind, funny, welcoming, and love their families and friends.

Bombs don’t fall on a map. They fall on people. For one brief moment I ask you to look beyond the justifications and the talking points. Think about those that will lose their lives and those that will survive with the pain of loss.

I relate more to the everyday people I’ve met around the world than the people running my country right now. The war mongers and profiteers don’t want you to see people, they want you to see darkness. I am hoping we see people and light because that is what’s really there.