Tag Archives: 2022 Reviews

Existence is elusive: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Black is beautiful
White is alright
Your half-caste child
Do you wanna fight
Do you wanna fight
Black girl carries
Her flick knife
Will she cut me up
For being half white

The national front
Are after me
I’m infiltrating
Can’t you see

“Half-Caste”, unpublished poem by Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

I was leafing through my dog-eared copy of George Gimark’s exhaustive Punk Diary 1970-1979 (currently out-of-print) and came across this entry under September 14, 1977:

X-Ray Spex have just been signed by Virgin Records. The group is fronted by a mulatto Brixton youth calling herself Poly Styrene. She’s no stranger to the recording world and had a single out under her real name Marion Elliot last year. Since seeing the Pistols play, she’s become a regular around the Roxy Club, resplendent in her dayglo vinyl, psychedelic kilt and full set of dental braces. They’ll be releasing X-Ray Spex’s debut single on the 30th. This is not X-Ray Spex’s first appearance on vinyl though. You remember they were included on the “Roxy” album singing “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” the same song they will re-record for Virgin in the next few weeks. Other members of the group include Jak Airport on guitar, Paul Dean on bass, B.P. Hurding on drums, and Laura Logic on saxophone. They’ve been playing together since January, and now are prepared to hit the big time, invading the male-dominated punk world.

I reckon very few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether it was by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She was not only “invading the male-dominated punk world” of the late 1970s (which, despite its imminent association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was still an overtly “laddish” club), but was doing so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to an absorbing new documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk.

Bell (Styrene’s daughter) confides her mother “…always said she’d never considered herself a ‘punk’…that it was just a label, coined by journalists. At the same time, she recognized that the scene was a perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.” That’s one of many unexpected twists in an artist’s journey that begins in working-class Brixton, makes a life-changing whistle stop in the Bowery, and ends in one of India’s most sacred rivers.

By the time Bell was born in the 80s, her mother’s initial fame as a punk-rocker had waned; Bell’s earliest childhood memories stem from a period when the pair lived in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire (they would later resettle in Brixton). Upon Styrene’s death from breast cancer in 2011, Bell became custodian of her mother’s artistic estate. Bell’s access to those archives provided impetus for the film.

Sadly, Styrene struggled with a bi-polar disorder throughout her life (initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia). Bell navigates this aspect with the sensitivity and compassion as only a close family member could, and it is genuinely moving.

Fame, in and of itself, can do a number on someone’s head; especially for women in a business where appearance is (right or wrong) …everything. As Bell explains, “When mum was young, she was pretty confident about the way she looked. She’d never been short of admirers. But the experience of being famous made her insecure; the public scrutiny over the way she looked started to grate on her. She felt like journalists were celebrating her by insinuating that she was unattractive and overweight-totally not getting what she was trying to achieve choosing not to expose her voluptuous form on stage.”

A perfect illustration of this maddening double-standard comes in a recollection of one incident. After a humiliating experience wherein a member of the Sex Pistols played a cruel prank on her at a party, Poly disappeared into the bathroom for a spell. Upon re-emerging, she sported a shaved head. The timing was unfortunate, as X-Ray Spex was on the bill for the now-historic Rock Against Racism event the next day. The 1978 rally/music festival (headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band) was held in London’s Victoria Park, and attended by an estimated 100,000 people.

To her band mates’ relief, she showed up to the gig with a woolen scarf on her head. While performing the song “Identity”, she slowly unraveled the scarf to reveal a bald pate. There were audible gasps from the crowd, but giggles from her band mates. Obviously, she was not expressing solidarity with the racist National Front skinheads (AWK-ward!). She had once told her band mates she never wanted to be a sex symbol, and joked if she ever were to become one, she’d shave her head. Always fearless; and hopefully, thanks to this lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist, never forgotten.

“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” premieres On Demand February 4th.

Please rewind: 80s Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection (yes, I’ve hung on to a few), put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. Several of my selections remain criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (are you listening, boutique reissue studios?). Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.

Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she is to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm), which leads to a bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark subtexts; yet there is also sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley gives a nuanced performance that belies her age as young Alice, and the late Jim Henson works his magic with the creature creations for the fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers (VHS only)– In this 1984 drama, writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

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Light of Day (VHS only)– From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study (scripted by the director) concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.

Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock ’n’ roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated, but nixed).

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Liquid Sky Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (the alien is a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score.

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One Night Stand (VHS only) – 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.

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 (ahem). 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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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid  (VHS only)–What I adore most about this 1987 dramedy from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts dread: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly (they don’t make ‘em like this anymore).

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 neo-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop  (VHS only) – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence.

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

Bolstered by a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft blend of belly-laugh hilarity and bittersweet emotion. Excellent supporting cast, especially Thom Bell, who injects humanity into an otherwise vile character. Sadly, the talented Lloyd never broke big; she went on to do a few relatively unremarkable projects, and then dropped off the radar.

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Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

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

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric that spouted from the Former Occupant of the White House, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on display in Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)–“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) the late Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was ostensibly the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)–Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There).

In The Landlord, Beau Bridges plays a trustafarian with “liberal views” that his conservative parents find troubling…especially after he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. Moses Gunn’s sharp screenplay was adapted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet also entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

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

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

Judas and the Black Messiah

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Trial of the Chicago 7

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous People’s Day

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

Never let me down: Midwinter cinema therapy

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Dee: Jane, do you ever feel like you are just this far from being completely hysterical twenty-four hours a day?

Jane: Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty-four hours a day.

— from Grand Canyon, screenplay by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan

HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

— from 2001: A Space Odyssey, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

George Fields: [to Dorothy/Michael] I BEGGED you to get therapy!

— from Tootsie, screenplay by Murray Schisgal

With more of us living la vida shut-in these days , the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 12 personal faves that I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; films I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, feeling anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down. Take one or two before bedtime; cocktail optional.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsing rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things get complicated, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about. A unique film that fully engages the senses. You may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a Greek tragedy; but it’s the last scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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The Dish – This 2000 Australian sleeper is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is quite moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on the 1997 dramedy The Castle (recommended!).

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Diva – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that has been labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never recorded a studio album and stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

An enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, for his own edification. By pure chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and glean a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Diva is an entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) informs Jules. Slick, stylish and cheeky with an engaging international cast.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s clever script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and feels as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (like John snorting the Coke bottle). Music highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Harold and Maude – Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where Harold and Maude Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens.

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Local Hero – This droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals, a “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ll ever see.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films that I have become emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Perhaps best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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My Neighbor Totoro  – While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits.

It’s a lovely tale about a young professor and his two daughters settling into their new country house (a “fixer-upper”) while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring and stumbles into the verdant court of a “king” nestled within the roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (an amalgam of every plush toy you ever cuddled with as a child).

Granted, it’s Miyazaki’s most simplistic and kid-friendly tale…but that’s not a put down. Miyazaki’s usual themes remain intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements magical, yet the human characters remain down-to-earth and easy to relate to. A charmer.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 88 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. Not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, long-form music video, and mockumentary. The vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite films of all time, period full stop (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi (definite contenders) it is akin to the unenviable task of describing color to a blind person.

I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…you’d probably say “That sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I also told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh and say “I’m being punk’d, right?” Of course, there is much more to it. It’s about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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 The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s one thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for his chance to pop out of a box and sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal

Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-TV era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) 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 actually 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 of 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 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. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).