Tag Archives: 2022 Reviews

Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/Goj-x4tv6yg4KzQOyHv3qFN84pU=/0x0:1332x697/fit-in/1200x630/cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7403783/tampopo_28880id_043.jpg?resize=474%2C248&ssl=1 Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, that most venerable of American holidays which enables families to gather once a year to count their blessings, stuff their faces, and endeavor mightily to not bring politics into the conversation, I thought I might mosey on over to the movie pantry and hand-select my top 10 food films. Dig in!https://i0.wp.com/eatablefilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Big-Night-still-2.jpg?resize=474%2C256

Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying).

The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and look for Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook. https://i0.wp.com/m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BYjZhMWRmMzEtMWNiZS00ZjE3LWJmZDAtMmQ1OTU2MjMwYTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg?resize=474%2C320&ssl=1  Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

https://filmsonthesilverscreen.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/the-cook-the-thief6.jpg?w=474  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

https://i0.wp.com/media1.popsugar-assets.com/files/thumbor/4fH_iaFjP4JKcDXLad4OqvLIXAM/fit-in/2048xorig/filters:format_auto-!!-:strip_icc-!!-/2017/08/30/025/n/1922283/7b0631ff3f8b02e4_MSDPUFI_EC029_H/i/Honey-Bunny-Pumpkin.JPG?resize=474%2C318&ssl=1  Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

https://i0.wp.com/www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/KA_01_TheTripToSpain_S01.jpg?w=474&ssl=1 The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him.

This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by three equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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Tom Jones– The film that made the late Albert Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety.

The film earns its spot on this list for a brief but iconic (and very tactile) eating scene involving Finney and the wonderful Joyce Redman (see below).

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

Bon Appétit!

Of spacemen and sidemen: Moonage Daydream (***½) & Immediate Family (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2022)

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Get out of my head…all of you.

– Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth

When a great artist dies, it is not uncommon to default to the old standby that “(he or she) meant so much, to so many people.” Of David Bowie (who returned to the cosmos in 2016), it may be more accurate to say that “he was so many people, who meant so much.”

Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Of his myriad personas, David Jones remains the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy Moonage Daydream (now on Blu-ray), even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is framed as a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself (think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs).

A caveat for fans: this is anything but a traditional, linear biographical portrait. Nearly all the “narration” is by Bowie himself, via strategically assembled archival interview clips (like the Beatles Anthology). Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of original Bowie music and scads of performance clips (the film was officially sanctioned by his estate, so I assume there were no licensing restrictions). The music is ever-present; just don’t expect it to be dissected and/or praised by the usual parade of musicologists and contemporaries.

While ardent fans (guilty) will recognize quite a few clips on loan from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: the Motion Picture (as well as other Bowie documentaries) there is some fascinating “new” footage here and there. A performance of “The Jean Genie” with Jeff Beck sitting in with the Spiders caught me by surprise (it was shot for Pennebaker’s 1973 film but had been omitted at Beck’s request). Beck and Mick Ronson are on fire, and it neatly closes the circle with the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” …the obvious inspiration for the song’s main riff.

The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to quote “Thomas Jerome Newton”, the alien played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film version of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man to Fell to Earth (screenplay adapted by Paul Mayersberg):

Television. The strange thing about television is that it – doesn’t *tell* you everything. It *shows* you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones’ “true mysteries” remain elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is quite absorbing and ultimately moving. And if you want to take the cosmic perspective, you, me and Moonage Daydream are all just waves in space…floating in a most peculiar way.

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There has been a proliferation of documentaries profiling legendary session musicians of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond who helped create the “soundtrack of our lives” (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Take Me to the River, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Hired Gun, etc.). One of the best of the batch is the 2008/2015 film The Wrecking Crew.

“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

The eponymous film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.

Tedesco’s new documentary, Immediate Family can be viewed as a “sequel”, essentially picking up where The Wrecking Crew left off. While many of the musicians profiled in the former film continued to work through the ensuing years, a new crop of hired guns began to make a name for themselves. Tedesco focuses on four players: bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel.

The names may not immediately ring a bell, but once you can associate faces with them, you’ll smack your forehead and say to yourself “Oh…that guy!” (especially Wachtel and Sklar, who sport quite distinctive hair and beard styles, respectively). Individually and collectively, the quartet has played in the studio and on the road with the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Don Henley, Keith Richards, and Phil Collins (all of whom are on hand to offer their two cents in the film).

All four players have had fascinating journeys, and when you realize their collective studio sessions number in the thousands, it’s impressive. It’s also inspiring for those of us of a…certain age that they remain so vibrant and productive well into their 70s. Entertaining road stories abound; Wachtel has the best ones, he’s quite the raconteur. His anecdote about a night he and Linda Ronstadt hit a strip club had me rolling.

Other luminaries who show up include Lyle Lovett, Stevie Nicks and Neil Young, as well as producers Peter Asher, Lou Adler and Mike Post. The film does get a tad redundant with the praise, and I think the phrase “It was a magical time” has now officially worn out its welcome-or maybe I’ve seen too many music docs. Still, I had a good time hanging out in the studio with these folks, and I think the film should strike a chord with any true music fan.

Turn off your mind and empty your wallet: ‘Revolver’ Deluxe review (5-CD edition) ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 5, 2022)

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The Beatles were beside themselves with glee. Stoned – which they were most of the time in the studio – the experiments became part prank, part innovation. In that kind of dreamy, altered, impractical state, the possibilities were limitless. Recording became no longer just another way of putting out songs, but a new way of creating them.

 –from Bob Spitz’s 2005 biography The Beatles, regarding the sessions for Revolver 

On August 5, 1966, The Beatles released an LP that not only represents the pinnacle of their oeuvre, but remains one of the best pop albums of all time. Yes, as painful as it may be for some of us of “a certain age” to process, Revolver turned 56 years old this year (!).

It’s even more mind-blowing that Revolver arrived just 8 months after Rubber Soul, an album that in and of itself reflected a quantum leap in musical and lyrical sophistication for the band. And whereas Rubber Soul demonstrated an earnest embrace of eclecticism (incorporating everything from rock, pop, and R&B to country, folk, and chanson), Revolver ups the ante further. As Tim Riley nicely summates in his book, Tell Me Why:

Rubber Soul has a romantic astonishment, the echoing realization that teenage quandaries don’t dissipate with age; they dilate. Starker realities intrude on Revolver: embracing life also means accepting death.

That’s a heavy observation; but lest you begin contemplating opening your veins, keep in mind that while “Tomorrow Never Knows” suggests you surrender to the void, and “She Said, She Said” insists I know what it’s like to be dead…this is the same album that gifted us the loopy singalong of “Yellow Submarine” and upbeat pop of “Good Day Sunshine”.

Yet Revolver works as a whole; 14 cuts of pure pop nirvana, with no filler. As someone once astutely observed, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain [in the 1960s], but also the most commercial.” Therein lies the genius of the Beatles; their ability to transcend that dichotomy with sheer talent and craftsmanship.

It is significant to note that when recording sessions for Revolver began in April of 1966, the Beatles were nearing the end of their touring days. It’s a logical  assumption that the less  time they spent touring, the more time they had to experiment and innovate in the studio. How quickly were they evolving? Consider this, from a 1966 UK newspaper article:

LONDON – They’re calling it the end of an era, the Beatles’ era.  […]  Last Sunday night, about 200 [fans] picketed the London home of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, demanding to see more of their idols. The foursome has not toured Britain this year and there are no plans for personal appearances […]  The obvious conclusion, supported by their words and actions in the past months, is that they are bored with being the Beatles. […]  With their success, they have gained a certain sophistication. Their last album, Revolver, was musically far ahead of their efforts at the height of their popularity and they are well aware of the fact.  “Songs like ‘Eight Days a Week’ and ‘She Loves You’ sound like right drags to me now,” John told an interviewer recently. “I turn the radio off if they’re on.” *

(*Source: Things We Said Today: Conversations with the Beatles, by Geoffrey and Vrnda Giuliano)

It’s very telling that Lennon distances himself from “Eight Days a Week” and relegates it to a bygone era, even though it was released just the year before (in February of 1965). You just don’t see that kind of accelerated artistic growth nowadays.

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At any rate, in celebration of Revolver handily pushing past the half-century mark with very little sign of aging, I thought it would be fun to revisit it, track-by-track, and see why it stands the test of time. In addition to giving a nod to the original UK 14-track sequence, I am prefacing with the double-sided 45 RPM release of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” – as they were recorded during the same sessions and shore up this truly amazing song cycle.

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Paperback Writer – One of the classic riff songs (it may have “inspired” the suspiciously similar hook for the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), featuring proto-metal guitar tone from George and a sonic Rickenbacker bass line from Paul (who also contributes  lead guitar). In a Ray Davies-styled turn, Paul assumes the character of a cynical pulp writer, drafting a letter of introduction that he hopes to be his entree to fame and fortune: Please Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look? Later in the song, he synopsizes it as a dirty story of a dirty man…and his clinging wife doesn’t understand. He’s flexible: I can make it longer if you like the style. Listen for George and John’s “Frere Jacques” quote in the backing vocals.

Rain – This is a Lennon song all the way; and generally regarded as the birth of psychedelia (the latter by virtue of actual release date, as it was preceded in the sessions by the equally trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows” the week before). The tune’s signature backward tape-looping was a trick accidentally “discovered” by a stoned John, who put the reels on upside down while listening back to a demo at home. The harmony vocals are very “raga-rock”. It’s a great track, with excellent drumming by Ringo (who concurs, stating once in an interview “I think it’s the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”).

Taxman – Back in the old days, before “shuffle play” (or “mix tapes”) were a thing, Side 1, Cut 1 held import; it really meant something. Sequencing an LP was a science; as that opening cut set the tone for the next 30 minutes of your life (slightly longer in the UK). This funky number, the first of 3 Harrison contributions to Revolver, is a perfect kickoff. It sports a catchy riff (I’m pretty sure Paul Weller had it stuck in his head when he wrote the Jam song “Start”), and a strident burst of lead guitar by Paul. This is the Beatles’ first foray into agitprop, with a stinging lyric that name checks politicians, and advises Inland Revenue to fuck off.

Eleanor Rigby – This is one of “those” songs that anyone who has ever sat down and attempted to compose a piece of music would gladly sell their soul to have written. Paul’s original working version was the sad tale of a “Miss Daisy Hawkins”, but eventually morphed into the sad tale of an “Eleanor” (after actress Eleanor Bron, who co-starred in the Beatles’ 1965 film, Help) “Rigby” (the name of a shop, according to Paul). It was a masterstroke to add the string backing (Paul’s idea, but producer George Martin’s arrangement), which makes this melancholic, yet hauntingly beautiful song even more so.

I’m Only Sleeping Lennon really ran with that backward looping thing during these sessions; the resultant “yawning” guitar effect gives this lovely, hypnotic number an appropriately “drowsy” vibe, lulling the listener into an agreeable alpha state for 3 minutes. My favorite take on the song is from Lennon’s BFF Pete Shotten, who observed that it  “…brilliantly evokes the state of chemically induced lethargy into which John had…drifted.” Ouch. If you want to hear an unapologetic lift, check out the song “Sweet Dreams” by The Knack.

Love You To – While George had already introduced Beatle fans to the exotic eastern twang of the sitar on Rubber Soul, he later insisted the 13-note run that defines  “Norwegian Wood” was “accidental” (he was ever the wry one). There is nothing “accidental” about the Indian influences on this proto-Worldbeat number, which features Anil Bhagwat on tabla, along with “session musicians”. Interestingly, George (sitar and vocals) is the sole Beatle on the track; if I’m not mistaken, the only precedent at that time was “Yesterday” (just Paul, and session players). Akin to “Taxman”, its couplets wax acerbic: There’s people standing round / who’ll screw you in the ground.

Here, There, and Everywhere – Paul has made it no secret that he was really taken by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, so much so that he developed an acute case of Brian Wilson Envy and lobbied his band mates to “go to 11” with Revolver to blow Wilson’s irksome masterpiece out of the water. Brian Wilson later said that Sgt. Pepper’s had a likewise effect on him! At any rate, this achingly beautiful ballad was allegedly Paul’s attempt to one-up “God Only Knows”.   

 Yellow Submarine – It’s a novelty tune. But as far as novelty tunes go, it’s a classic. This was Ringo’s “one song” for this album (OK, occasionally they would let him sing two, but not as a rule). While it has been interpreted by some to be about drugs, or war, Paul and Ringo insist it was designed to be exactly what it sounds like…a kid’s song (sometimes, a yellow submarine is just a yellow submarine). It sounds like they had fun making it, which apparently they did. George Martin says they “all had a giggle”. He even pitched in on the fade-out chorus, which included Patti Harrison and studio staffers.

She Said She Said –Another psychedelic gem by John, which was literally inspired by psychedelics, written in reference to an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (you know those space cowboys had the good shit). At any rate, the story goes that John got freaked out by Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this unsettling mantra stuck with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead

(End of Side 1. I’ll give you a moment to flip the record over.)

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Good Day Sunshine – The kickoff to Side 2 is Paul in full cockeyed optimist mode. Everything about it is “happy”, from the lyrics (I feel good, in a special way / I’m in love and it’s a sunny day) and the bright harmonies, to George Martin’s jaunty ragtime piano solo. Paul has said that he was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful; and indeed the song does have that “Do You Believe in Magic?” / “Rain on the Roof” / “Daydream” kind of vibe to it. So lighten up!  

And Your Bird Can Sing – It’s always fascinating to me how artists view their own work, as opposed to fans’ perceptions. This song is a perfect example. In interviews over the years, John dismissed it as “Another horror.” (Hit Parader, 1972) and “Another of my throwaways.” (Playboy, 1980). But as far as I’m concerned, he was wrong. This easily places in my top 5 Beatles favorites; a perfect 2 minute slab of power pop goodness, replete with chiming open chords for the verses and Lennon’s patented chromatically descending bass lines on the bridge. And for a “throwaway”, its double-tracked harmony guitar parts sound pretty sophisticated to my ears (to this day, I can’t figure out those note runs). 

For No One – Another unmistakably “McCartney-esque” ballad; this one a melancholic lament about a relationship gone sour. It features one of Paul’s most beautiful melodies (this guy tosses them off in his sleep-it’s a genuine gift) and sophisticated lyrics. The narrative is the aural equivalent of a “split-screen” view, observing two ex-lovers as they go about their daily routines; one still pines, the other has moved on. Alan Civil’s transcendent horn solo rips your heart out. Lennon once named this as one of his favorite McCartney tunes.

Dr. Robert – Prince had “Dr. Michael”, Michael Jackson had “Dr. Conrad”, Elvis had “Dr. Nick”, but the (more often than not) dubiously titled “personal physician” is no stranger to show biz (or professional sports…or to the rich and famous in general). Back in the 1960s, NYC-based Dr. Charles Roberts became popular with Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd for his, shall we say, open-mindedness when it came to administering “medicine” (mostly in the form of injections; vitamins, speed and even LSD). This was John’s in-jokey homage.  

I Want to Tell You – This superb cut from George is one of his best tunes, with a memorable riff. A friend of mine who is more versed in music theory than I (I’m largely self-taught) has been kind enough to occasionally enlighten an old dog on some new scales and chord theory and such (it’s never too late to start). Recently, I asked him to deconstruct this particular song for me, because I’ve always wanted someone to explain  why that dissonant piano figure Paul pounds out at the end of each verse “works” so well. Naturally, it went in one ear and out the other, but it made sense to me at the time!

 Got to Get You into My Life –Paul’s Motown homage (and possible nod to the Northern Soul movement that flourished in the U.K. at that time) was also one of his most self-consciously “radio-friendly” compositions to date (witness its belated official release as a “single” in 1976, when it managed to climb up to #7 on the charts…six years after the Beatles disbanded). Of course, Paul’s little in-joke may be embedded in the lyrics, which he later confessed to be an ode to the joys of weed (a predilection that once landed him a night in a Japanese jail). At any rate, it’s a fab song, no matter how you interpret it, with a soul/R&B flavored horn chart (a Beatles first).

Tomorrow Never Knows – Just when you think the Fabs couldn’t possibly top the creative juggernaut of the previous 13 cuts, they save the best for last (sequentially, the first number they had worked on for these sessions, which lends the song cycle a poetic symmetry, especially considering the refrain: So play the game “Existence” to the end / Of the beginning…of the beginning…). In a 1980 Playboy interview, John explained, “That’s me in my ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ period. I took one of Ringo’s malapropisms as the title, to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.” It’s heavy, all right-and doesn’t sound like anything in Western pop up to that time; truly innovative. It’s basically a drone in “C”, with John’s vocals recorded through a loudspeaker, which George Martin turned to the side of the studio microphone. This gave John the sound of a “Dalai Lama singing on a hilltop” (as he had requested). Backward tape loops add to the mesmerizing vibe, and Ringo lays down a thunderous, primal beat that drives the tune quite powerfully. Which brings us to the end. Of the beginning…

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“All in all, not a bad album” notes Paul McCartney (with possible tongue-in-cheek) in his forward to a 100-page book included with the new 5-CD Revolver Special Edition box set. Revolver is the latest album from the Beatles catalog to get the deluxe treatment (following Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let it Be). 

OK, Boomer…here’s the deal. As with previous Beatles deluxe reissues, there are many editions of Revolver (which can be perplexing, even with a little help from your friend Mr. Google). Don’t fret, Beatle people…I’ve done the research and am here to assist. First, a note on the most important part-the music. All the editions feature new mixes by producer Giles Martin and Sam Okell, and are sourced directly from the original four-track master tapes.

A lot of us are budget-conscious right now, so I will begin with the most affordable option, and we’ll work our way up from there. If you just want Revolver classic, with the original 14-tracks and no frills, there’s the 1-CD Special Edition (includes a truncated booklet). If you prefer to kick it old school, there is the original 14-track vinyl LP Special Edition (picture disc). 

Upgrading slightly: The 29-track Deluxe 2-CD Special Edition features the 14-track album, a 2nd disc of bonus tracks that includes new stereo mixes of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” (in addition to demos and studio outtakes), plus a 40-page booklet.

Moving into 3-digit territory: The Special Edition Super Deluxe 5CD (the one I went with) includes the new stereo and mono mixes of the original album (1-disc each), an EP replica CD of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” (new stereo and mono mixes), 2 additional CDs with bonus tracks (demos, outtakes, alternate mixes, etc.) plus a lovely (hardbound) 100-page book.

If money is no object, there is a limited Special Edition Half-Speed 4 LP + 7″ Vinyl EP box set. And for those who simply must have it all, there is the 63-track Super Deluxe Special Edition, which essentially combines the 5-CD box with the 4 LP/7″ EP set (tossing in digital audio versions in stereo and hi res 96kHz/24-bit stereo + mono + Dolby Atmos for giggles).  

Oh, yeah …almost forgot. How do the new mixes sound? Let me put it this way…”Eleanor Rigby” literally had me in tears. Granted, not a happy song to begin with…but I have easily heard it close to 1,000 times, and I detected a new resonance in the strings, a warmth in McCartney’s vocal, an overall clarity and depth to the mix that is truly mind-blowing (the Beatles catalog is so embedded into my neurons that if there is even the slightest of variance in a song…be it but a brush on a string or an intake of breath, I’ll notice it). Ditto the entire album.  

Bottom line-if you’re a Beatle fan, just go for it, because…tomorrow never knows.

[Scary] Mask Required: 13 movies for Halloween!

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 29, 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Speaking of Fay Wray…nearly 50 years of midnight showings have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

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

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

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

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

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Siesta –Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (don’t let your attention wane!).

Reviews were mixed when the film came out, but I think it’s high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rossellini. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

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

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

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

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

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Young Frankenstein – Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks goofs on elements from James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, and Rowland V. Lee’s 1939 spinoff, Son of Frankenstein.

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

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

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

The Docu-horror Picture Show: Top 13 documentaries for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 22, 2022)

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Hey…you wanna see something really scary? Real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never match the thrills, the chills…the abject horror of, say, watching the news, peeking in on your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for the upcoming election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.

So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 13 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?

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The Act of Killing – “At first, we beat them to death… [but] there was too much blood…to avoid the blood, I [devised] this system,” explains former Indonesian government death squad leader Anwar Congo, the “star” of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary, and then helpfully gives us an instructive (and macabre) demonstration of his patented garroting method (with the assistance of a stick, some metal wire, and a giggly “victim”).

Then, the eupeptic Congo breaks into an impromptu cha-cha dance.

This is but one of many surreal moments in Oppenheimer’s film (exec produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog). Congo is a self-described “gangster” who claims to have personally snuffed out 1,000 lives during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 “communists” that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government.

Congo and Koto were not only amenable to happily skip down memory lane revisiting the scenes of their crimes, but offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. This counter-intuitive mash-up of hard-hitting investigative journalism and ebullient “Hey, I have a barn, let’s put on a show!” participation from the very parties the filmmaker aims to expose could make some viewers’ heads explode.

I know what you’re thinking: These men are morally reprehensible, untouchable and beyond redemption, so why indulge them this sick fantasy? (Picture the warm and fuzzy feeling you’d get if the next Powerball winner turned out to be one of those 97 year-old former Nazi camp guards). What’s Oppenheimer’s point? Is he crazy? He’s crazy all right. Like a fox. Because something extraordinary happens to one of our “heroes” when he insists on playing one of his own victims in an execution reenactment. Watch it and be amazed. (Full review)

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The Atomic Cafe – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting true-crime documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather pressures of the trial and the surrounding media circus .

The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)

The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.

Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects every life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Cruise– A number of years ago I became friends with a co-worker who would pace his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume his pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?

If you can take it, Bennett Miller’s one-of-a-kind 1998 documentary portrait spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s double-decked Gray Line buses. Levitch’s world view is …interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he yet another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The true horror of schizophrenia can only be known by those afflicted, but this 2005 rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is the next worse thing to being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between creative inspiration and mental illness most of his life (see: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).

As recounted in Jeff Feuerzig’s film, Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, repeatedly stumbles into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything is in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.

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Gimme Shelter – It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly known for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the infamous incident at a 1969 Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show)-but there you have it (and hence its inclusion here). Those scant seconds of the doc’s running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the top rockumentaries. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

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Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.

Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).

The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The cult appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation ran for 2 years.

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In the Realms of the Unreal-Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously composed in long hand over a period of decades (literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: A mythic universe largely populated by young, naked hermaphrodites (the”Vivian Girls”).

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an exhibit, which I had a chance to do at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum back in 2007). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work, with actors reading excerpts from the tome.

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An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. In Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 doc, former VP Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Buñuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – There was a fascinating documentary on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just folks from the office, hamming it up for the camera. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by an interviewee in Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The questioner is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators. The “answer” is complicated…and what ensues not easy to watch. Nonetheless, Morris’ film is a compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review).

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Zoo-It was disturbing enough when the Seattle press broke the story in 2005 about a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses. But when it was subsequently revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.

That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, writer-director Robinson Devor and his co-writer Charles Mudede maintain a sensitive, neutral tone throughout; the film is not as exploitative as one might assume.

Book of Saturday: A chillaxing mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 15, 2022)

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So I was channel surfing last night, and happened upon an airing of Sidney Lumet’s Network on TCM, just as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was launching into his “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. It’s an inspired set piece.

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’

Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a TV network that hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”.

46 years on, Network plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The prescience of Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant screenplay not only foresees the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

Not that you need me to tell you things are bad…or that a dollar buys a nickel’s worth:

Almost half of US families surveyed by the Census Bureau found the recent rise in consumer prices “very stressful” — and the vast majority of the others were also worried about inflation.

The Census Bureau included a new question about the impact from soaring prices in its regular household poll. The result shows that nearly everyone was at least a little stressed by inflation, and particularly so in fast-growing cities like Miami, where the cost of living has surged.

The survey also highlights disparities among ethnic groups. More than half of Hispanic and Black respondents found inflation “very stressful,” compared with about 43% for Whites and about 38% for Asian Americans.

Stress can lead to health problems such as elevated blood pressure and heart disease.

The number of respondents who have difficulty paying their bills is increasing amid rising interest rates and economic uncertainty. More than 40% of households report having a hard time covering usual expenses in the latest survey, conducted from Sept. 14 to Sept. 26. That’s up from less than a third two years ago.

Good times.

Then there’s all the other…stuff going on now (just watch a newscast, if you dare). But, dear friends (if I may borrow from the Firesign Theatre) …it’s not my intention to add to your anxiety, or elevate your blood pressure; in fact (pull the curtains, Fred) right now I invite you to kick back and de-stress with this (hopefully) “chillaxing” rerun…

# # #

(The following was originally posted on Hullabaloo on April 4, 2020)

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You’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? Here’s one you can add to the list: Maxell UD XL-II 90 cassettes. I was going through some musty boxes the other day and found a stash of mix tapes that I’ve had since the 70s and 80s. I’ll be damned if they didn’t sound just as good as the day I recorded them (My theory is that they are manufactured from the same material they use for “black boxes”).https://i0.wp.com/cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2015/09/22/21/46/cassette-tape-952524_1280.png?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1I was into putting together “theme sets” long before I got into the radio biz. My mix tapes were popular with my friends; I’d make copies on demand. I would name my mix tapes. One of my favorites was “The Oh My God I am So Stoned Tape”. I don’t believe that requires explanation; I mean, it was the 70s and I was a long-haired stoner music geek.

 45 years later, I’m still putting together theme sets. It is my métier. It’s kind of sad, actually (grown man and all). Anyway …turn off the news, turn down the lights, do some deep breathing, and let “The Oh My God I am So Stoned Tape 2020 Redux” wash your pandemic anxiety away. I’ve sequenced the songs in a manner designed to evoke and sustain a particular mood-so for maximum effect, may I suggest that you listen to it in order. Enjoy!*

*Herbal enhancement optional

King Crimson – “Book Of Saturday”

Weekend – “A View From Her Room”

Mark-Almond Band – “The City”

Budgie – “Slip Away”

Robin Trower – “Bluebird”

Robert Fripp (f/Daryl Hall) – North Star

Jimi Hendrix – “May This Be Love”

Be-Bop Deluxe – “Crying To The Sky”

Ambrosia – “Nice, Nice, Very Nice”

Heartsfield – “Magic Mood”

kd Lang – “Outside Myself”

Glen Campbell – “Wichita Lineman”

Terry & the Lovemen (aka XTC) – “The Good Things”

Buggles – “Astro Boy (And The Proles On Parade)”

Japan – “Taking Islands In Africa”

Aswad – “Back To Africa”

Laura Nyro – “Smile” / “Mars”

Todd Rundgren – “Boat On The Charles”

The Beach Boys – “Surf’s Up”

Kate Bush – “The Morning Fog”

Jade Warrior – “English Morning”

The Who – “Sunrise”

It’s a Beautiful Day – “White Bird”

Circus Maximus – “Wind” 

King Crimson – “Peace: An End”

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 8, 2022)

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What a difference an administration makes.

On October 9th, 2020, the Former Occupant of the White House issued an official Columbus Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.

On October 7th, 2022 (and for the 2nd year in a row now) President Biden issued an official Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the sovereignty, resilience, and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world; and we recommit to upholding our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, strengthening our Nation-to-Nation ties.

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed from ancestral lands, displaced, assimilated, and banned from worshiping or performing many sacred ceremonies. Yet today, they remain some of our greatest environmental stewards. They maintain strong religious beliefs that still feed the soul of our Nation. And they have chosen to serve in the United States Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group. Native peoples challenge us to confront our past and do better, and their contributions to scholarship, law, the arts, public service, and more continue to guide us forward.

I learned long ago that Tribal Nations do better when they make their own decisions.  That is why my Administration has made respect for Tribal sovereignty and meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations the cornerstone of our engagement and why I was proud to restore the White House Council on Native American Affairs.  To elevate Indigenous voices across our Government, I appointed Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, along with more than 50 other Native Americans now in significant roles across the executive branch.

My Administration is also directly delivering for Native communities — creating jobs, providing critical services, and restoring and preserving sacred Tribal lands.  We have made the biggest investment in Indian Country in history, securing billions for pandemic recovery, infrastructural improvements, and climate change resilience, and we are working together with Tribal Nations to end the scourge of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Pledging to end the scourge of violence against human beings, but nary a peep about protecting monuments? Preserving sacred Tribal lands while (apparently) letting the National Garden of American Heroes go to seed? Where are your priorities, Joe?!

I mean…come ON, man!

At any rate…in honor of this coming Monday’s Indigenous People’s Day , here are 10 films well worth your time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not necessarily in that order: A (roundabout) tribute to Jean-Luc Godard

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2022)

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December 3, 1930-September 13, 2022

A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. –Jean Luc-Godard

Speaking of “non-linear”, that reminds me of a funny story (well, not “ha-ha” funny). I once had the privilege of seeing the late Jean Luc-Godard in the flesh before I had seen any of his films. To be honest, this memory had been tucked away in the cobwebs of my mind until several days ago, when it was triggered by this AP news flash:

Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.

[JUMP CUT]

Be advised that this will not an assessment of his oeuvre. No one could accuse me of being a Godard scholar; out of his 40+ feature films, I’ve seen 12. And out of that relative handful, the only two I have felt compelled to watch more than once are Breathless and Alphaville.

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The aptly entitled Breathless still knocks the wind out of me; it was (and remains) a freewheeling, exhilarating poke in the lens of conventional film making. And…sodamsexy. Despite its flouting of the rules, the film is (possibly) Godard’s most easily digestible work. Over the years, his films would become ever more challenging (or downright maddening).

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Indeed, even my second-favorite Godard film, Alphaville, played hard-to-get with me. From my review of the 2019 Blu-ray reissue:

The first time I saw this 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, a couple weeks ago I picked up a copy of this newly restored 4K Blu-ray and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.

This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass.

See? I freely admit to being a middlebrow film buff with a high school diploma who’s been to two worlds fairs and a rodeo, but I eventually “get it”. Now, it’s possible the stumbling block that I can’t quite articulate is the “disturbing quality” of Godard’s films that Pauline Kael expounds upon thusly in her 1966 essay “Movie Brutalists: The French New Wave”:

There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies. […]

An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”

He’s wrong, I think. The young are not “trying to forget”: they just don’t think in those terms. Godard’s power—and possibly his limitation—as an artist is that he so intensely expresses how they do feel and think.

OK, I think I get it now. Godard was intense. Like a repo man (to paraphrase Harry Dean Stanton). And you know what? Akin to Ms. Kael’s elderly gentleman, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, either… I went places and did things. Like that time I was living in San Francisco and went to see Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard.

[FLASHBACK]

I should back up a second and explain how it was that I ended up seeing Godard before seeing any of his films. From my 2017 essay about the demise of the neighborhood theater:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit.

[FLASH-FORWARD]

Which brings us back to the news of Godard’s passing this week. I suddenly remembered attending an event in the early 80s that featured Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard onstage somewhere discussing (wait for it) film. But since my memory has been playing tricks as of late (I mean, I’m 66…however the hell that happened), I thought I’d consult someone who was there with me…my pal Digby. She not only confirmed that she and I and my girlfriend at the time did indeed pile into Digby’s Volkswagen to see Kael and Godard (at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, as it turns out), but somehow dug up a transcript of the proceedings.

There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth when we realized this happened 41 flippin’ years ago (oh, to be in my mid-20s again). Anyway, the evening was billed as “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate with Jean Luc-Godard and Pauline Kael” (May 7, 1981). I recall primarily being super-jazzed about seeing Kael (I was more familiar with her work than Godard’s). I can’t recall a word either of them said, of course, but I do remember my surprise at how engaging and effusive Godard was (I had fully expected to see the “enfant terrible”).

Reading through the transcript…I must have learned a lot (it didn’t stick). For the most part, Godard was wearing his thoughtful critic’s hat that evening. Here’s one fascinating exchange:

J-LG: Well, just five minutes ago you told me that I should not hold you responsible for all American film criticism, but I think you are, in a way, just as I feel responsible for the movies I see even if I have not made them.

PK: Oh, no, I won’t accept that. I can’t believe that you personally feel that you are responsible for the work of somebody whose work you hate.

J-LG: Well, let’s take this article, for example. You wrote about why movies are so bad, and you attack (and I disagreed with you) a good fellow you mentioned by name who was Vice President of some conglomerate. You made him responsible for everything that is bad in the movies. I said to myself, “How can one man be responsible for… ?” I mean a movie is made by a hundred people at least. It’s like war. Nixon is responsible, but the American people are responsible for electing Nixon.

PK: Well, let me explain what I mean about the people at the top having that much influence. If the people at the top of the movie company are not primarily interested in movies, but come either from agencies or law firms or the business community itself, if they are from the Harvard Business School, as many of them are, and they are put in to rationalize the business, and if they look strictly in terms of how much money they can get out of a project before it goes into production, that is to say of how much they can be sure of from television, from overseas televisıon, from cable, from cassettes, they know they can get the most money from pictures that have stars or have a big bestseller property. Those pictures are the easiest to market, and so it is the marketing decisions that determine which pictures they will make. And often if a picture comes along that they did not have much confidence in and really couldn’t sell in advance, they don’t do anything for it so that a picture like Melvin and Howard or, say, All Night Long or Atlantic City doesn’t get anything like the promotion of those movies that they are sure of. As a matter of fact, they are embarrassed to be connected with those movies because they assume those movies are going to fail financially and so, inadvertently, they make those pictures fail.

J-LG: Yeah, but it’s not a good reason. It’s right, but it doesn’t describe the reality of making a movie. They alone are not making the movies, the movies are made by the audience, the movies are made by the cinematographers, by the union people, they are all responsible. . . I mean why don’t they sell American cars today?

PK: Jean-Luc, let’s put it this way….

J-LG: No, it’s because who is obeying this order? I try never to obey it. That’s why….

PK: You don’t work in a big studio system.

J-LG: I wish I could (laughter).

PK: But the reason you can’t is the reason I am explaining. It’s the same reason that an American Godard could not work in the big studio system.

Plus ca change

That’s my Jean-Luc Godard story, and I’m sticking to it. As mentioned earlier, I did eventually catch up with some of his earlier work; now that his final reel has played and the lights have come up, I should probably catch up a little more before my end credits start rolling (or they revoke my film critic’s license…whichever comes first). Maybe I’ll begin with his final film and work my way back until I meet myself in the middle. In the end, it’s all relative. After all, as  supercomputer ALPHA-60 says in Alphaville, “Time is like a circle which turns endlessly.”

[FIN]

Lord, I’m so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

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(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)

Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead

-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?

I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).

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Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.

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Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.

Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.

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Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).

Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.

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On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2022)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

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So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free. After all, this is the 21st Century.

Oh, crap:

Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Friday, amid fears that fighting around the complex could trigger a radiation leak or an even bigger catastrophe.

The move came a day after the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily disconnected from the national power grid for the first time in its 40-year history, heightening fears of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.

The pills were being distributed to people who live within a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of the plant in Enerhodar, Volodymyr Marchuk, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration told NBC News.

Recipients were being told not to take them preventatively, he said, adding that they were “being distributed in case of any future radiation leak, at which time the government would instruct people to take the tablets.” […]

Earlier Friday, the country’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said the plant was being safely powered through a repaired line from the power grid, a day after it was disconnected from the national power grid. There were no issues with the plant’s machinery or safety systems, it said.

It was later announced that the plant had been reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid and was producing enough electricity to meet the country’s needs. (via NBC News)

So…there’s no immediate cause for alarm, then? Wait a minute. This just in:

Ukraine’s president on Friday said the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains “very risky” after two of its six reactors were reconnected to the grid following shelling that caused Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to be disconnected for the first time in its history.

Russian shelling continued to displace civilians in the east of the country, where three quarters of the population has fled the frontline region of Donetsk, according to the regional governor, and Ukraine continued to damage Russia’s supply routes to the southern front near Kherson. […]

Residents in Zaporizhzhia city, 50 km northeast of the plant, expressed alarm at the situation.

“Of course I am scared. Everyone is scared, we don’t know what will happen next, what is waiting for us every next minute, second,” said social media manager Maria Varakina, 25.

School teacher Hanna Kuz, 46, said people were afraid that the Ukrainian authorities might not be able to warn residents in time in case of radiation fallout. (via Reuters)

OK, then. In consideration of this week’s events, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

Oppenheimer remains a fascinating character; Christopher Nolan recently began production on a 2023 biopic titled (wait for it) Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy.

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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 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 about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it had never been previously available in any home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand –An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era (Wargames, The Manhattan Project, Red Dawn, et.al.).

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.