Tag Archives: 2023 Reviews

Oh, mama…could this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2023)

I don’t feel safe in this world no more
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman

-from “Apeman” by The Kinks, written by Ray Davies

(With apologies to Douglas Adams) So long…and thanks for all the fish:

There’s no reason to panic — an asteroid will shoot past our planet harmlessly [this past] Thursday night, NASA says. But still, the space agency says the object — the size of a large moving truck — will make one of the closest approaches to Earth ever when it zips over the Southern Hemisphere.

NASA describes it as “a very close encounter with our planet.”

The asteroid, dubbed 2023 BU, will be only 2,200 miles above the Earth’s surface when it passes over South America’s southern edge at 7:27 p.m. ET, NASA says.

For comparison, that’s a little shorter than a straight-line trip from New York City to Las Vegas, which is about 2,230 miles through the air.

“In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, as the agency announced the close passage.

Even if it did hit our planet — which it won’t, scientists repeat — the small asteroid’s main effect would be visual, at it would become a fireball in our atmosphere, with some debris likely falling as small meteorites.

Obviously, it shot past us, and they must have known way ahead of time, right? Oh shit…

The asteroid is arriving on short notice: 2023 BU was just discovered [last] Saturday by Crimean amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who has previously been credited with discovering a number of comets and asteroids, including the first confirmed interstellar comet.

NASA’s Scout system, which assesses potential hazards, quickly determined that 2023 BU wouldn’t hit Earth but “make an extraordinarily close approach,” said Farnocchia, who developed the system.

News of the looming visit comes at a time when NASA has put new emphasis on planetary defense, detecting and analyzing objects that could pose an impact hazard. Last year, it even tested a just-in-case plan to ram an asteroid, if it someday becomes necessary to redirect an object away from Earth.

[via NPR]

We dodged that one! And the important thing is, I’m OK, you’re OK. Right? Oh dear…

This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.

The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.

And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.

Oh, that. Well, aside from the looming nuclear threat…we’re in pretty good shape?

The rise in emissions in 2022 accelerated the ongoing increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will continue so long as emissions of carbon dioxide continue. Not only did weather extremes continue to plague diverse parts of the globe, but they were more evidently attributable to climate change.

But aside from the nuclear threat, and global climate catastrophes…what else ya got?

The existing biological threat landscape makes clear that the international community needs to improve its ability to prevent disease outbreaks, to detect them quickly when they occur, and to respond effectively to limit their scope.

Devastating events like the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer be considered rare, once-a-century occurrences. The total number and diversity of infectious disease outbreaks has increased significantly since 1980, with more than half caused by zoonotic diseases (that is, disease originating in animals and transmitted to humans). As such, zoonoses put the human population at significant risk for pandemics.

Ah. Apart from the nukes, climate catastrophes, biological threats…anything else?

Developments regarding potential threats from disruptive technologies told a mixed story last year.

On the disinformation front, there was some good news: For the most part, the American electorate rejected election deniers in 2022, and in France, President Emmanuel Macron overcame a historic challenge from his country’s far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continued its efforts to increase the role of scientists in informing public policy.

See?! Something positive. So we are good to go now, correctomundo?

On the other hand, cyber-enabled disinformation continues unabated. In the United States, political opposition to a “Disinformation Governance Board” proposed by the Department of Homeland Security was grounded in willful misrepresentation and the politics of personal destruction. But non-substantive and misleading as its messages were, the opposition succeeded in causing the department to withdraw its proposal. These types of attacks are hardly new but are emblematic of corruption in the information environment.

Inside Russia, meanwhile, government control of the information ecosystem has blocked the wide dissemination of truthful information about the Ukraine war. Chinese use of surveillance technology has continued apace in Xinjiang. As we stated last year, the extensive use of surveillance technologies has disturbing implications for human rights and poses a distinct threat to civil society.

[via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

You must be a laff riot at parties. Good day to you. OK, enough gloom and doom. It’s time to get to the entertainment portion of our program. Stand by. Just breaking today:

To allay any panic…just in case you missed this part, it’s worth repeating:

The general’s views do not represent the Pentagon but show concern at the highest levels of the U.S. military over a possible attempt by China to exert control over Taiwan, which China claims as a territory.

He’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. Here’s my metric: If Top Gun Maverick wins Best Picture, don’t forget to say your prayers. If it doesn’t win, I wouldn’t worry.

Anyway, the pure entertainment value of Armageddon has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues, or mankind’s curious propensity for seeking new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve curated my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature.

So enjoy…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, postmodernist fantasy re-imagines Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, a yuppie Jesus (Martin Donovan) and his P.A., Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) jet into NYC, checking into their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”. J.C. has arrived to facilitate Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. However, the kid has doubts about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also in town. Trials and tribulations ensue.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s engrossing and thought-provoking.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

This cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) was written and directed by Val Guest. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but has a compelling narrative. Co-starring veteran scene-stealer Leo McKern.

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“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. (Full review)

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Ornery aliens

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because McKellar employs a similar quiet, deliberate manner of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are plenty of wry touches (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings). The powerful denouement packs quite a wallop.

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar tosses fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this 1998 sleeper 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 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 thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and 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 one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

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.”

Double Bill: w/ When the Wind Blows

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a mesmerizing performance in this 1985 cult film, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). New Zealand director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

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

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomy of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal). Rudolph Maté directed; Sydney Boehm adapted his screenplay from the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact

 

 

A breath rippling by: Jem Records Celebrates Pete Townshend (Guest review)

A special guest review by Bob Bennett

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You’ve heard of The Who….. with their malevolent live performances, smashed guitars and record-setting sound volumes.

Never was a band composed of more diverse personalities.  They literally fought on stage at times and yet when the anarchy came together, they were the best live band in the world.  The Who was no accident, it was a purpose-built mod meets rocker machine that was terrifying to witness up close and yet could touch the teenage soul instantly like a kind word from a stranger.  The Who never had a Top 10 hit* in the US, but you didn’t doubt their power because your dad or someone’s brother was really into them.

Feeding the machine was the songwriter, Pete Townshend, a skinny brooding art student who ripped off the power chord sound of The Kinks to produce their first hit, “Can’t Explain.”  It was no love song he had penned, or maybe it was.  Pete was an enigma in interviews, simultaneously self-effacing and brutally caustic.  In the age of flower power, he was the punk who smashed Abbie Hoffman with his guitar while The Who were assembling to play at Woodstock and Abbie grabbed a band mike to address the crowd.

While other quartets were writing sunny pop songs that climbed the charts with perfect harmonies, Pete was in his bedroom studio channeling a young man’s feelings about rejection, unrequited love, fashion, freedom and political rage.  He was/is a multi-instrumentalist who delivered perfectly crafted demo tapes to The Who which would be faithfully executed like a hammer hitting a nail or like a car-sized pinball careening through a canyon of monstrous bumpers and lights.  The songs were the stuff of violent nightmares and achingly tender dreams.

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He said “You can go sleep at home tonight If you can get up and walk away” (Pete Townshend, “Who Are You”)

Off stage, Pete was hermit-like in his slavish devotion to the craft of song writing.  He learned to recognize what songs were “Who songs” and which were something else.  Pete created a 9 minute mini-opera and then invented the rock opera with Tommy.  His “Who songs” were sung by a golden-haired street tough with blue eyes, but behind the songs was Pete ever trying to capture the perfect note and shine a light on the demons that prowl invisibly through our world.  Over time, Pete’s solo recordings outnumbered his “Who songs” (albeit with overlaps).

Jem Records Celebrates Pete Townshend was released in August 2022 (following 2 similar compilations for Brian Wilson and John Lennon).  The formula is brilliant: new bands creating fresh takes of their favorite Pete Townshend compositions. Jem credits Pete Townshend with creating the power pop genre, and that’s high praise from a company that over a 50 year span broke bands like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, ELO, The Cure, Genesis into the US market.

Their President, Marty Scott, has created a beautifully crafted paean to his favorite musician that will delight fans (old and new). Did I mention Marty is the guy who brought Cheap Trick to fame by pressing 10K copies of  a concert recording that he simply entitled Cheap Trick Live at Budokon?  3 million pressings later…..

Opening the album is a hauntingly familiar sound that is comforting and yet different.  It is the opening sequence of Baba O-Riley (the “Teenage Wasteland” song) expertly rendered on a mandolin rather than on Pete’s Lowry organ.  When the 42 layered tracks of Lisa Mychol’s vocals came in, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  Sally, take my hand!

Next, is a track from Tommy called “I’m Free” played by The Grip Weeds. Keith Moon’s fat drum sound is perfectly replicated within a muscular analog band sound — these guys own the New Jersey studio where many tracks on the album were produced.  They artfully capture the “swing” of the song in a way that reminded me of how both Pete and Keith would often play unabashedly just off the beat.

A couple of tracks later, Nick Piunti delivers a suitably beefy version of “The Seeker” with a wonderfully staccato opening using what must be P-90 “soapbar” pickups on a Gibson SG Special like Pete often played.  If you are the type who listens to the words …the names of the muses that Pete consulted in the song (e.g. Bobby Dylan and Timothy Leary) have been changed to Little Steven and another DJ(?).   The swagger here is palpable and reminiscent of the brawniness of the early 70’s Who, when Pete was strutting across stages in his white jumpsuit and Doc Marten boots.

There are 14 tracks total, each providing a familiar yet weirdly great take on songs that you may know by heart.  It’s like listening to an alternate reality where The Who took Pete’s demo tapes as a starting point rather than replicating them.  It also revealed (for me) hidden bits of lyrics I’ve previously missed. This respectful compilation – complete with excellent liner notes and mod “target” artwork – will be a permanent part of my collection, and I laughed when I realized that the opening and closing tracks are identical to Who’s Next!

*Pete’s had a “Top 10” hit called “Something In The Air” (performed by Thunderclap Newman) which reached #1 in the UK for 3 weeks in 1969.  His “Let My Love Open The Door” broke the Top 10 as a solo effort in 1980.

This Byrd has flown: RIP David Crosby

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2023)

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In his Jeff Beck tribute last week, music industry maven Bob Lefsetz observed:

And [Beck’s] death was so sudden. At 78. May sound old to you, but then you’re probably not a baby boomer. I mean the end is always looming, but you always believe it’s at some distant point in the future, when in truth it’s closer than you think.

But it’s even weirder than that. The giants are falling. The building blocks of not only the British Invasion, but classic rock, are passing. The icons and the secondary players. But they were all major players to us, music was everything. Not only was it soul-fulfilling, it told you which way the wind blew. And the hits were not all the same and new ones popped up all the time, it was a veritable smorgasbord of greatness.

Falling like dominoes. To paraphrase The Giant in Twin Peaks: “It is happening again.”

“Difficult and gifted” would be a fitting epitaph. But with Crosby, the “gift” far out-trumped the “difficult”. No matter how bad things got for him, that heavenly, crystalline voice never faltered. In fact, his pipes were so pure and pitch perfect that while I can always isolate Stills, Nash, and Young’s individual parts in those patented harmonies…try as I might, I can never “hear” Crosby. I know he’s in there, somewhere-but I’ll be damned if I can detect his contribution. Yet, I would notice if he were not there.

He was one of the best harmony singers that I have never heard.

Crosby was not only an ideal  “middleman” for facilitating lovely harmonies, but an essential catalyst for several iconic bands that sprang from the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960’s. In my review of the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon, I wrote:

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.). […]

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?) […]

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that. […]

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

Crosby was right there, at the epicenter. As Michael Des Barres noted, he “stuck to his guns”, wearing the ethos of 60s counterculture idealism and political activism on his sleeve until his dying day. From my review of the 2008 documentary Déjà Vu:

Cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from [Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young]. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

Adieu to a musical icon. Here are 10 of my favorite Crosby songs. Feel free to tear up.

What’s Happening?!?! – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from Fifth Dimension)

Triad – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from The Notorious Byrd Brothers)

Guinevere – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Wooden Ships –  Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Déjà Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Almost Cut My Hair –  Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Laughing – David Crosby (written by David Crosby; from If I Could Only Remember My Name)

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? – The Jefferson Starship (written by Paul Kantner and David Crosby; from Blows Against the Empire)

Whole Cloth – Crosby & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Graham Nash David Crosby)

In My Dreams – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from CSN)

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)–Historically, the Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has been somewhat misrepresented, with a tendency to spotlight its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its flaws, represents one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings 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 trove of vintage yet pristine 16mm footage that had been tucked away for years in the basement of Swedish Television; representing a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal commentary. While not perfect, it is an essential 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 deliver a fresh 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

The Alchemist: RIP Jeff Beck

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2023)

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Goddam it all, anyway. This one hurts.

The music world has lost one of its greatest vocalists. That is not a typo. Jeff Beck could make a guitar speak, in every sense of the word. He rarely stepped up to the mic during the course of his 60+ year career, but whenever he set his fingers to a fret board, he told you a story; sometimes joyous and life-affirming, sometimes sad and melancholy…but it never meandered into masturbatory self-indulgence. Every note held import, serving a distinct narrative that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Like all great artists, he was loathe to dawdle too long in a comfort zone; he never stopped exploring, pushing the boundaries of his instrument ever-further with each performance (whether on stage or in the studio). While he was generally relegated to the “rock” section, he could slide effortlessly from blues, boogie, and metal to funk, R & B, soul, jazz and fusion (more often than not, all within the same number).

He made it appear easy as an oil change, but I’m sure he put in his “10,000 hours” of practice at some point (when he wasn’t tinkering with his cars, which was his “happy place” off stage). I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years, and no matter how closely I’ve studied his fingers in concert videos, I am stymied as to how he wrestled those sounds from his axe. All I know is that it had something to do with the whammy bar, volume knobs, thumb-picking, and a magic ring. It’s some kind of alchemy way beyond my ken.

I saw Beck in L.A. with The Jan Hammer Group, circa 1976 at the Starlight Amphitheater. I was in the nosebleed section, but I. was. mesmerized. A command performance.

You’ve heard the term “musician’s musician”? The Twitter tributes confirm he was.

And how can we forget his Antonioni moment?

Even from somewhere out there in the ether, he’s expressing what I’m feeling right now, as I listen to my favorite Beck instrumental. Rest in peace, maestro. Rave on.

 

2023: A Spliff Odyssey

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2023)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace
Too much informers and too much beast
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy New Year! How about some good news? Via News Nation/Nexstar:

After voters in several states approved recreational marijuana in 2022, the U.S. heads into the new year with nearly half of states having full legalization.

The biggest changes are in the Northeast, where the legalization of recreational pot is new in several states. Rhode Island and New York kicked off sales in December 2022. Connecticut will allow sales to adults aged 21 and older on Jan. 10, 2023. Maryland is preparing to allow adult use starting July 1.

Missouri also voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November. Dispensaries there are still working to get permitted, so recreational sales aren’t expected to start until February 2023 at the earliest. […]

By the end of 2023, a few more states could be added to the list of green states. Oklahoma will vote on the issue in March. The Ohio state legislature is also considering a bill to legalize the use and sale of recreational weed.

Voters in three states – Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota – rejected legalizing weed in the November election. Medical use is legal in all three states.

Only three states have no public-use marijuana program of any kind (neither medical or recreational) according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska.

Nice to see more states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. Well…relatively peacefully. There are still a few bugs in the system:

(via The Center Square)

According to an unofficial tracker by greater Seattle area cannabis retailer Uncle Ike’s, there have been at least 100 armed robberies of Washington state pot shops in 2022, the most in the past decade.

The 10-year high in armed robberies at Evergreen State marijuana stores comes at a time when a federal banking bill aimed at stopping pot store stick-ups failed to pass the Senate.

The spotlight intensified on the issue earlier this year when one of those armed robberies turned lethal. Twenty-nine-year old employee Jordan Brown of Gig Harbor was shot and killed on March 19 when two teens allegedly robbed the World of Weed dispensary in Tacoma.

“It’s certainly a sobering figure,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said of the increased number of armed robberies at pot shops in Washington. “With crime on the rise and our industry disproportionately affected due to outdated federal banking regulations forcing state-licensed cannabis providers to operate cash heavy businesses, it’s absolutely shameful that another year is passing with Congressional failure to pass the SAFE Banking Act.”

It’s widely accepted that Washington’s marijuana shops are targeted because they are all-cash businesses.

Cannabis is legal in Washington, among other states, but federal law still classifies cannabis – along with heroin and cocaine – as a Schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and little to no medical benefit. That makes it difficult for federally regulated financial institutions to work with state-legal cannabis businesses.

The bipartisan marijuana banking bill known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement, or SAFE, Banking Act would allow marijuana dispensaries to use credit cards, debit cards, and other banking services instead of being cash only.

The bill was supported by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

In an April op-ed in The Tacoma News Tribune, Inslee and Ferguson said Congress ought to “immediately…pass the SAFE Banking Act which would, at long last, allow cannabis retailers to more easily use common cashless payment options such as credit and debit cards.”

The federal legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate and was not included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed Congress [in late December].

“This threat to public safety and private property would largely be avoidable with some Congressional action,” Smith continued, “and we’re going to keep working on safe and fair banking until we win.”

That means trying again with the incoming Congress.

“We do expect to see the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act reintroduced in the next Congress and hope that both parties can work together to finally resolve this problem by passing the bill,” Smith said. “Support for cannabis reform is growing a lot slower in Congress than it is among the voting public, but it is moving in the right direction.”

Considering recent events in the House …let’s keep those fingers and toes crossed. Oy.

So I thought I would welcome the newest forward-thinking states to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary 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 Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and 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”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby: