Tag Archives: 2021 Reviews

Babylon Berlin: Enfant Terrible (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2021)

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“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.”

― Rainer Werner Fassbinder

An oft-quoted Chinese philosopher once proffered “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. He could have been prophesying the short yet productive life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Over a 15-year period ending with his death in 1982 at age 37, the German playwright, director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc. churned out 40+ feature films, a couple dozen stage plays , two TV mini-series, and various video productions, radio plays and shorts.

As illustrated in a new biopic, he also snorted lots of coke, cruised a lot of rough trade, threw a lot of tantrums, and generally treated friends, lovers, and actors (frequently all one and the same) like shit. It could be argued he didn’t suffer for his art, so much as make those around him suffer for it. He was “the bad boy” of New German Cinema.

Hence the title of Oskar Roehler’s fitfully inspired Enfant Terrible, which is propelled by Oliver Masucci’s scenery-chewing turn as Fassbinder (a performance that vacillates between Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall and John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House).

After several years of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating theater productions, Fassbinder declares to his long-suffering collaborator Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) “Wherever you go is material that is about how people see their dreams and how their dreams get destroyed. The theater can’t do it. Only cinema can do it.” This launches a torrent of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating films.

Eventually critics and audiences warm to Fassbinder’s work, starting with his internationally acclaimed 1974 drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The narrative thread about Fassbinder’s relationship with leading man El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) provides Enfant Terrible with an emotional core it otherwise lacks (as nihilism  runs through much of Fassbinder’s work, perhaps it is intended to reflect the artist himself).

Roehler cannily replicates the aesthetic of Fassbinder’s films; bold colors, the cinematography (by Carl-Friedrich Koschnick), production design (done by Roehler himself), self-consciously theatrical sets, and the use of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame indicates that he did his homework.

Using metatheatre, Roehler and co-writer Klaus Richter draw parallels between snippets of Fassbinder cruelly manipulating actors on set and vignettes depicting his tortured personal life, but it becomes repetitive. It’s a shame they didn’t take a deeper dive into Fassbinder’s creative vision; what you’re left with is a highlight reel of his filmography sandwiched between yet another sad study in willful self-destruction.

(“Enfant Terrible” is now playing in select physical and virtual cinemas)

Cheap thrills: The Paper Tigers (***½) & In Action (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2021)

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It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Full disclosure: Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but it was shot here in Seattle.

Tran subtly subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining The Karate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in this tale of three friends, all former teenage kung fu champions now riddled with the baggage and creeping infirmities of middle age.

The one-time star of the trio is Danny (Alain Uy) a divorced suburban dad with a drudge office job that keeps him tethered to his cell phone, even when he is trying to enjoy quality time with his young son on weekends (his ex is not pleased). Wisecracking Hing (Ron Yuan) was specially trained in the arts of ancient Chinese healing but is now barely ambulatory due to an accident and subsisting on disability checks. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is the most physically fit of the lot, but still suffers the odd pull, creak, or tweak.

The men have gone their separate ways in their adult lives. Danny and Hing have kept in touch, but Danny and Jim have not been on speaking terms since an incident that took place on the eve of a martial arts tournament the then-teenage trio was attending in Japan.

However, when they learn that the recent death of their beloved “sifu” (kung fu teacher) may have involved foul play, the trio decide to put aside differences, get the band back together and launch their own investigation to find the culprit and avenge (if applicable).

While that setup may sound cliché…well, it is. But what separates Tran’s film from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, smart (and frequently hilarious) dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still plenty of fight scenes, all expertly choreographed and genuinely exciting to watch.

The three leads are appealing and have great chemistry. Even the “bad guys” of the piece are three-dimensional; particularly Danny’s long-time nemesis (played with aplomb by Matt Page (creator of the martial arts comedy web series “Enter The Dojo”). Frankly, I did not expect to enjoy The Paper Tigers so much, but I, erm…really got a kick out of it!

“The Paper Tigers” is now playing on various digital platforms.

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There are “low budget” movies, and there are “no budget” movies. Not that it makes a difference in the quality of what ends up on screen; some of my all-time favorite films are low-budget or no-budget wonders. Sadly, In Action will not be joining them this evening.

Billed as an “action film” with tongue-in-cheek, In Action is predicated on a one-joke premise that its budget is so low (“How low is it, Johnny?”) that nearly all its “action” is implied, rather than shown…most of what you are watching onscreen is inaction (get it?).

What you are mostly seeing onscreen are the occasionally gore-spattered mugs of co-writer-director-stars Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera, who play (wait for it) Sean and Eric, two aspiring filmmakers who are brainstorming on their screenplay for an action movie. When government spooks hack into their laptops and mistake their story treatment for a terrorist plot, Sean and Eric find themselves embroiled in a real-life action film (of sorts).

It’s a clever concept, with spurts of comic inspiration using animation, hand-drawn sketches and toys, but Kenealy and Silvera’s histrionic acting goes to “11” and sustains that level for the entire film (which feels much longer than its actual 79-minute run time). The expletive-laden dialog leans heavily on insult humor of the Kevin Smith variety, but somehow lacks the panache (the film is reminiscent of Clerks, except without the laughs).

To their credit, Kenealy and Silvera do fully commit to…whatever this is. There’s always the possibility that they are utilizing some post-ironic meta-SXSW hipster shtick that I’m too out-of-touch to “get” (e.g., I never “got” Mr. Show, despite co-workers half my age insisting that I’d laugh my ass off. I watched several episodes …completely stone-faced).

Yeah, maybe I’m gettin’ too old for this shit…

“In Action” will be available on various digital platforms May 11.

 

No boundary line: A Jazz Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2021)

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Officially, yesterday (April 30th) was International Jazz Day for 2021. But as far as I’m concerned, every day should be Jazz Day...and not just for the music. Here’s why:

International Jazz Day brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics, and jazz enthusiasts all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact; raise awareness of the need for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding; and reinforce international cooperation and communication. Each year on April 30, this international art form is recognized for promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, and respect for human rights and human dignity; eradicating discrimination; promoting freedom of expression; fostering gender equality; and reinforcing the role of youth in enacting social change.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. In honor of Jazz Day, here are 10 of my favorite cuts:

Miles Davis – “Pharaoh’s Dance” – Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving). Miles always had heavyweight players on board, but the Bitches Brew roster is legend: including future members of Weather Report (Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul), Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Lenny White) and The Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham) – who are all now acknowledged as key fusion pioneers.

Pat Metheny & Anna Maria Jopek- “So It May Secretly Begin” – This has always been my favorite Metheny instrumental; but it got even better when I recently stumbled onto this breathtaking live version with added vocals, courtesy of the angel-voiced Jopek.

Gil Scott-Heron- “Pieces of a Man” – Gil’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

Digable Planets- “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”– I caught these guys at a Seattle club in 1993 and became a fan; a unique mashup of hip-hop with traditional jazz instrumentation.

The Style Council- “The Whole Point of No Return” – Spare, beautiful, jazzy, and topped off with his most trenchant lyrics, I think this is Paul Weller’s greatest song.

Barry Miles- “Hijack” – Memorable track from the keyboardist’s self-titled 1970 LP.

Milton Nascimento- “Nothing Will Be As It Was”– Hailing from Brazil, eclectic signer-songwriter Milton Nascimento is a world beat superstar who seamlessly blends jazz, samba, pop and rock into his own distinctive sound. This cut is taken from his 1976 album Milton, which features Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock sitting in.

Brian Auger & the Oblivion Express“Whenever You’re Ready” – It’s hard to believe that the ace keyboardist and “godfather of acid jazz” is still gigging after 50+ years. In 1991, I had the honor of opening for Auger and Eric Burdon at a concert in Fairbanks, Alaska (I was doing stand-up). This cut is taken from the excellent 1973 Oblivion Express album Closer To It.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra- “Open Country Joy”— What I like the most about jazz is that it’s the most amenable of musical genres. Put it next to anything else: rock, soul, hip-hop, whatever…and then just watch how quickly it absorbs, adopts, and then shapeshifts it into something else altogether. John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Rick Laird and Jerry Goodman understood this. Here’s a perfect example. As the title implies, it begins as a nice country stroll, then…it blows your fucking mind. From the whisper to the thunder.

George Duke & Feel – “Love”— The late keyboardist extraordinaire George Duke was a versatile player; in addition to the 40+ albums in his catalog, he was equally at home doing sessions with the likes of Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Third World, and (most famously) he played with Frank Zappa for many years. This cut is from Duke’s 1974 album, Feel. Zappa (credited under the pseudonym “Obdwel’l X”) contributes the lead guitar.

Bonus track!

Ryuichi Sakamoto & Kaori Muraji – “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” – While electronica/experimental musician Ryuichi Sakamoto is not considered a jazz artist per se, I hear jazz leanings in some of his compositions. This instrumental, which he composed as the main theme for Nagisa Oshima’s eponymous 1983 WW2 drama, is one example. It’s an achingly beautiful song to begin with, but this live rendition with Sakamoto accompanying Kaori Muraji on guitar is sublime.

No rest for the guilty

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2021)

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Good morning!

From The Guardian:

The systematic killing and maiming of unarmed African Americans by police amount to crimes against humanity that should be investigated and prosecuted under international law, an inquiry into US police brutality by leading human rights lawyers from around the globe has found.

A week after the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death, the unabated epidemic of police killings of Black men and women in the US has now attracted scorching international attention.

In a devastating report running to 188 pages, human rights experts from 11 countries hold the US accountable for what they say is a long history of violations of international law that rise in some cases to the level of crimes against humanity.

They point to what they call “police murders” as well as “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhuman acts” as systematic attacks on the Black community that meet the definition of such crimes.

They also call on the prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague to open an immediate investigation with a view to prosecutions.

“This finding of crimes against humanity was not given lightly, we included it with a very clear mind,” Hina Jilani, one of the 12 commissioners who led the inquiry, told the Guardian. “We examined all the facts and concluded that that there are situations in the US that beg the urgent scrutiny of the ICC.”

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse (from today’s Democracy Now )…

Outrage is growing in Philadelphia after explosive revelations that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have been in possession of remains thought to belong to two children who were among 11 people killed in the 1985 police bombing of the Philadelphia home of the radical, Black liberation and anti-police-brutality group MOVE. We show an excerpt of a training video — now removed from the internet — by an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University who has been using the bones of at least one of the young bombing victims for the past 36 years — without the knowledge or consent of the families — and get response from a MOVE family member. “It makes you wonder: What else do they have?” says Mike Africa Jr., a second-generation MOVE member who grew up with the children whose remains have now been located. “What else are they covering up? What else are they lying about?”

Good God.

This development is particularly egregious if you know the details of the 1985 MOVE incident. And anyone from Tucker Carlson to your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving who tries to convince you that the increasing spotlight on these incidents is some kind of phony human rights crisis being ginned up by Lefties and/or the “liberal mainstream media” has never cracked open a history book. And now it seems that the whole world is not only watching, but judging. As any person with a conscience and a whit of humanity should.

For just a tiny fraction of that history, here’s my original 2013 review of the excellent “found footage” documentary that recounts the 1985 MOVE incident, Let the Fire Burn (currently streaming on iTunes, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video).

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 7, 2013)

Attack the block: Let the Fire Burn (***1/2)

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

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

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be

…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Whether MOVE belongs on that list is perhaps debatable, but in Osder’s film, you do get the sense that leader John Africa (an adapted surname that all followers used) was a charismatic person. He founded the group in 1972, based on an odd hodgepodge of tenets borrowed from Rastafarianism, Black Nationalism and green politics; with a Luddite view of technology (think ELF meets the Panthers…by way of the Amish). Toss in some vaguely egalitarian philosophies about communal living, and I think you’re there.

The group, which shared a town house, largely kept itself to itself (at least at first) but started to draw the attention of Philadelphia law enforcement when a number of their neighbors began expressing concern to the authorities about sanitation issues (the group built compost piles around their building using refuse and human excrement) and the distressing appearance of possible malnutrition among the children of the commune (some of the footage in the film would seem to bear out the latter claim).

The city engaged in a year-long bureaucratic standoff with MOVE over their refusal to vacate, culminating in an attempted forced removal turned-gun battle with police in 1978 that left one officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd-degree murder and jailed.

The remaining members of MOVE relocated their HQ, but it didn’t take long to wear out their welcome with the new neighbors (John Africa’s strange, rambling political harangues, delivered via loudspeakers mounted outside the MOVE house certainly didn’t help). Africa and his followers began to develop a siege mentality, shuttering up all the windows and constructing a makeshift pillbox style bunker on the roof. Naturally, these actions only served to ratchet up the tension and goad local law enforcement.

On May 13, 1985 it all came to a head when a heavily armed contingent of cops moved in, ostensibly to arrest MOVE members on a number of indictments. Anyone who remembers the shocking news footage knows that the day did not end well. Gunfire was exchanged after tear gas and high-pressure water hoses failed to end the standoff, so authorities decided to take a little shortcut and drop a satchel of C-4 onto the roof of the building. 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) died in the resulting inferno, which consumed 61 homes.

Putting aside any debate or speculation for a moment over whether or not John Africa and his disciples were deranged criminals, or whether or not the group’s actions were self-consciously provocative or politically convoluted, one simple fact remains and bears repeating: “Someone” decided that it was a perfectly acceptable action plan, in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood (located in the City of Brotherly Love, no less) to drop a bomb on a building with children inside it.

Even more appalling is the callous indifference and casual racism displayed by some of the officials and police who are seen in the film testifying before the Mayor’s investigative commission (the sole ray of light, one compassionate officer who braved crossfire to help a young boy escape the burning building, was chastised by fellow officers afterward as a “n****r lover” for his trouble).

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we still have go in purging the vestiges of institutional racism in this country (1985 was not  that long ago).

In a  strange bit of Kismet, I saw this film the day before Nelson Mandela died, which has naturally prompted a steady stream of retrospectives about Apartheid on the nightly news. Did you know that in 1985, there was a raging debate over whether we should impose sanctions on South Africa? (*sigh*) Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 24, 2021)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of Oscar weekend. Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (presented in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains director Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Milius, it’s an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.

2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they  last long enough.

3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a master screenwriter (Robert Towne), two leads at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (Jerry Goldsmith), you end up with a film that deserves to be called a “classic” on every front.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II (A tough call, to be sure).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for men in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this shit up.

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this cynical age we live in, once upon a time there were these things called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and basic human decency. Ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic (which he co-wrote with Charles Spaak) is at its heart a treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich van Stroheim head up a fine cast.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel by John Huston for his directing debut, is vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist…so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that. Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and of course Peter Lorre as ‘Joel Cairo’ (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as the immortal Howard Beale). 45 years on, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient, Oscar-winning screenplay does not only prophesy news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age. Fantastic work from a cast that also includes William Hoden, Faye Dunaway (who won for Best Actress), Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight (who won Best Supporting Actress). But alas…no ‘Best Picture’ statue.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction- With the cottage industry of Pulp Fiction wannabes that spewed forth in its wake, it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film was. Depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek? Um, yes?

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump (Still difficult for me to accept.)

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose recollections are seamlessly interwoven, like a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and warmly intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just took it for an umpteenth spin the other night, and laughed as if I was watching it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators through the years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Liang Ming’s drama is an ambitious feature debut–perhaps overly so. Set in northeast China, the film begins as a character study about a brother and sister struggling to make ends meet in a fishing town. The young woman (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented worker and on the verge of losing her hotel maid job. Her half-brother (Xiaoliang Wu) has just lost his fishing job.

When the siblings befriend the free-spirited daughter of a prosperous mob boss, the sister oddly begins to act like a jilted (lover?) once her brother and their new friend start sleeping together…but there is no explanation as to why. There is a suggestion that the two women have the hots for each other, but that thread goes nowhere fast. About 40 minutes in there is a hint that you’re now watching a crime thriller, but no thrills ensue. Ultimately the film is a wash.

SIFF 2021: Topside (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Be advised: This stark, intense and harrowing drama about homelessness and heroin addiction is not for the squeamish (count me among the squeamish). Co-writers and directors Logan George and Celine Held’s film begins literally in the dark underbelly of New York City…and figuratively works its way down from there.

A homeless single mother (Held) and her 5-year old daughter (Zhaila Farmer) survive hand-to-mouth living in an abandoned subway tunnel. When city officials order a sweep of the subterranean community, mother and daughter are forced “topside” onto the mean streets. Not a “feel good” film, but the most gripping and heartbreaking junkie drama I’ve seen since Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 character study The Panic in Needle Park.

SIFF 2021: The Spy (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Swedish director Jens Jonsson’s WW2 drama is based on a “rumored” story regarding famous Norwegian-Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. After Sonja (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) shuns the advances of German occupied Norway’s reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer), he arranges to have her father arrested by the SS (as spurned Nazis do). Swedish intelligence offers to help free her father if Sonja agrees to get chummy with Terboven so she can gather intel (they are eager to find out if/when the Germans plan on invading Sweden).

The film drags in the first half, which is essentially a series of fetes and elegant dinners where Sonja flirts and mingles with high-ranking Nazis, but eventually delivers on its “spy thriller” billing with added layers of subterfuge and intrigue. While not destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Mephisto or The Last Metro, The Spy is a stylish (if workmanlike) genre entry. The screenplay was written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland.

SIFF 2021: The Salt in Our Waters (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s sumptuously photographed variation on the venerable “city mouse-country mouse” scenario concerns a metropolitan sculptor (Titas Zia) who travels to a remote fishing village in the Bangladeshi Delta for a sabbatical. Inspired by the beauty of the coast (as well as one of the young women), he begins work on new pieces. Some villagers are puzzled by his sculptures (which they view as “idols” with no practical purpose) but are hospitable to their guest.

However, when the fishermen find their nets are suddenly coming up short (due to rising tides), the recently arrived outsider becomes a convenient straw man for the “Chairman”, the local head cleric and village leader. A compelling, beautifully acted drama that makes salient observations on tradition vs. modernity and science vs. fundamentalism.

SIFF 2021: Deadly Cuts (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Strictly Ballroom meets Eating Raoul in this twisted black comedy from writer-director Rachel Carey. A quartet of hairdressers living in a crime-ridden Dublin neighborhood are working overtime to brainstorm new “cuts” that are innovative and exciting enough to wow the judges at the imminent “Ahh Hair!” championship.

The women suffer a setback when their salon is vandalized by a gang who run a neighborhood protection racket. When the gang’s oafish leader shows up at the salon demanding payment, the confrontation escalates and the women are forced to defend themselves-with extreme prejudice. Let’s just say… it’s on to the championship, girls! The film becomes increasingly more campy and over-the-top as it progresses, but it’s (darkly) funny throughout.