Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2011: The Trip ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner With Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold.

SIFF 2011: Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Well…it was intriguing on paper.

So who was Serge Gainsbourg? He was a so-so painter, questionable poet and inexplicable pop music icon (well, in France). Nonetheless, he apparently was quite the babe magnet (he bedded Bardot and wedded English supermodel Jane Birkin, the latter with with whom he co-created his Greatest Hit-the talented Charlotte Gainsbourg).

His music career was largely built on the success of one tune-“Je t’aime…moi non plus”, featuring Birkin essentially feigning an orgasm at the denouement, over an organ riff suspiciously similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (surely paving the way for future seduction mix tape staples like “Love to Love You Baby” and “Jungle Fever”).

Star Eric Elmosnino bears an uncanny resemblance and chain-smokes Gitanes with conviction, but director Joann Sfar seems more enamored with his own cinematic technique than with his subject; it’s an impressionistic study that barely makes any impression at all.

SIFF 2011: Bruce Lee, My Brother **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)


Co-directors Manfred Wong (who also wrote the screenplay) and Wai Man Yip based this biopic on the memoir of  Bruce Lee’s younger brother Robert (although it is interesting to note the disclaimer in the opening credits that disavows any endorsement by or participation with Lee’s estate). Not that the film necessarily dishes any dirt. In fact, it’s a relatively tame, by-the-numbers affair, recounting young Lee Jun-fan’s formative years growing up in Hong Kong (he was born in San Francisco, but his acting-troupe parents were not U.S. citizens). For a movie about someone who went on to become one of filmdom’s premier action movie superstars, there’s very little action. Still, it’s slick and entertaining (if short on insight) and leading man Aarif Rahman plays his role with verve.

SIFF 2011: Another Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)


Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention.

Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles.After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Oh-the “sci-fi” part? On the night of the accident, a duplicate Earth was discovered (doppelgangers!). Assuming “they” discovered “us” (or vice-versa) simultaneously, scientists postulate that synchronicity was broken at that instant. Kind of leaves the door open for second chances-or does it? I’m not telling. See it yourself-and prepare to have your mind blown.

SIFF 2010: WIlliam S. Burroughs: A Man Within ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)


Director Yony Leyser has shouldered an ambitious undertaking for his debut -attempting to decipher one of the more enigmatic literary figures of the 20th century. As he so beautifully illustrates in his film, William S. Burroughs was more than just a gifted writer or one of the founding fathers of the Beats; he was like some cross-generational counterculture/proto-punk Zeus, from whose head sprung Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Ken Kesey, William Gibson, Terence McKenna, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and Kurt Cobain.

Yet, there was an evasive, almost alien “otherness” to him, not to mention a questionable personal history. As John Waters so glibly points out in the film, he “…was a hard guy to like”, referring to Burroughs the junkie, gun nut and wife-killer (accident, so the legend goes). Leyser gathers up all of these conflicting aspects of Burroughs’ makeup and does an admirable job at providing some insights. There’s a lot of rare archival footage, mixed in with observations from friends and admirers like Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Peter Weller.

SIFF 2010: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)


Did you know Ray Bradbury was only paid $400 for the original serialized version of Fahrenheit 451 published in Playboy in 1954? That’s one of the interesting tidbits I picked up from this lengthy yet absorbing documentary about the iconoclastic founder and publisher of the magazine that I, personally, have always read strictly for the articles (of clothing that were conspicuously absent-no, I’m kidding). Seriously-there’s little of prurient interest here. In a manner of speaking, it’s mostly about “the articles”.

Brigitte Berman (director of the excellent 1985 documentary Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got) interweaves well-selected archival footage and present day interviews with Hefner and friends (as well as some of his detractors) to paint a fascinating portrait. Whether you admire him or revile him, as you watch the film you come to realize that there is probably no other public figure of the past 50 years who has so cannily tapped in to or (perhaps arguably) so directly influenced the sexual, social, political and pop-cultural zeitgeist of liberated free-thinkers everywhere.

SIFF 2010: Miss Nobody *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)


“Black comedy” is a fickle art form. Too dark-nobody laughs. Too “ha-ha” funny, and it’s just comedy. One thing that does not work for black comedy is “cute”-although it can provide a touch of irony, if the doses are carefully measured (see John Waters). Miss Nobody, which premiered at SIFF this week, is just  too cute for its own purposes.

Leslie Bibb stars as mousy (but cute) secretary Sarah Jane, a “nobody” in the food chain at a large pharmaceutical company. At the urging of her workplace confidante (Missi Pyle) she applies for an open junior executive position. Much to her surprise, she gets the job-only to have it snatched from her by a weaselly, Machiavellian corporate climber (Brandon Routh) who offers her a job as his executive assistant with transparent pseudo-sincerity. Sarah Jane swallows her humiliation and disappointment and takes the offer anyway. Her mother (Kathy Baker) sees a silver lining, urging her to go ahead and dig for the gold. WTF, Sarah Jane figures, if she can hook up with her new boss, she can at least become “Mrs.” Machiavellian corporate climber (besides-he’s, you know, so cute).

Her “plan B” however is dashed when, in the midst of putting the moves on her in his apartment late one night, her boss lets it slip that he already has a fiancee. While physically struggling to put the kibosh on his advances, Sarah Jane inadvertently causes his death by freak accident. She is still in shock the next  day at work, fully expecting to be “found out”. She receives an even bigger shock when she is called into the chief executive’s office, not to be turned over to the authorities, but to be congratulated on her promotion-to her late boss’ position. The gears in her brain click, and a more sinister “plan B” for climbing the ladder emerges. What a kooky setup!

It’s been a while since I sat so stone-faced through a “comedy”. I could sense that director Tim Cox and writer Doug Steinberg were going for a Serial Mom vibe, but their film plays more like a glorified episode of Sex in the City, right down to the chirpy narration by the protagonist. Cox’s film has a slick, glossy look, but the flat and predictable story line drags it down. Even the usually dependable Adam Goldberg (or as I like to  call him, “Gen Y’s Joey Bishop”) can’t save this one. The film seemed awfully similar to a 1997 indie starring Carol Kane, called Office Killer (which I rather enjoyed). Maybe it’s just bad timing-the employment situation is grim enough these days.

SIFF 2010: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)


“Do you want to know what ‘fear’ looks like?” exclaims Joan Rivers, motioning for a close-up of her fingers, as they tamp impatiently on a blank page of a weekly planner, “That is what ‘fear’ looks like.” Later on in the film, she laments “This (show) business is all about rejection.” Any aspiring stand-ups out there need to heed those words of wisdom (and I will back her up on this). Fear and rejection-that’s the reality of stand-up comedy.

That being said, one could also take away much inspiration from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work– Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s engaging “year in the life” portrait of the plucky, riotously profane 75 year-old, as she rushes from nightclub and casino gigs to TV tapings, taking meetings and sweating over the writing and production of her one-woman stage play.

The film also reviews her ever-vacillating career, from Borscht Belt beginnings to anointment (and eventual blackballing) by Johnny Carson, then slowly back up to middling. What emerges is a woman who is still working her ass off, putting people half her age to shame with a fierce drive to succeed. There’s something to be said for perseverance.

As Kathy Griffin notes, Rivers was instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in standup. Joan, on the other hand, is not so sure. “I swear-if one more female comic comes up and thanks me for kicking the doors open, I’m gonna say: Fuck you! I’m still kicking them open.” Hey…at least she’s still kicking.

SIFF 2010: Visionaries ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)


An old pal of mine dismissed “experimental” films as “movies that hurt your eyes”. As I was watching this documentary about avant-garde movie critic, filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, directed by legendary editing whiz Chuck Workman, I began to chuckle to myself. Viewing the parade of clips from the likes of movement pioneers like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger, I began to see what my old pal was driving at. Because, when viewed strictly as non-contextualized clip montage, it does strike one as a jumbled confusion of nonsensical jump cutting, herky-jerky camera movements, images that are under-exposed, over-exposed, fluctuating wildly in and out of focus…in short, a headache-inducing experience that kind of hurts your eyes.

But it was precisely this kind of “visionary” and free-form style of filmmaking that informed and inspired the work of more familiar contemporary directors like David Lynch (who appears in the film) and Guy Maddin (who, rather puzzlingly, does not). Now, just because a film might be labeled as “visionary”, does not necessarily equate that it is, in fact, “watchable”. Consider Andy Warhol’s infamous stationary camera epics, Sleep (5 hours, 20 minutes of real-time footage depicting a man catching his Zs) and Empire (8 hours observing the ever-static Empire State Building). Do you know anyone who has actually sat through them (while remaining completely awake and alert)?

I stayed awake and alert through Workman’s film; it’s certainly a startling assemblage of images (if anything). But it neglects to address the most important question (which was the impetus behind the excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That)-Is it truly Art?

SIFF 2010: Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling is about “that” Candy Darling, famously name-dropped in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. Who was “she”, exactly? Should we care? I went into James Rasin’s documentary with a little consternation. Yet another film about Andy Warhol’s Factory, and his orbiting freak show of sycophants, wannabes and “superstars” who were (mostly) famous just for being famous? As it turns out, Rasin’s film is not so much about the Factory, or really ultimately “about” Darling, who fascinated Warhol for the requisite “15 minutes”, before getting kicked to the curb. It’s a study in sadness.

It’s the sadness of a lonely childhood; of a boy growing up on Long Island (as Jimmy Slattery) who yearned to be a famous female movie star; no more, no less. She was featured in a few Warhol films and had the lead in a play tailored for her by Tennessee Williams-only to die of lymphoma in 1974, at age 29, virtually penniless. It’s the eternal sadness of her friend, Jeremiah Newton, still carrying a torch for a long-gone (platonic) relationship, as he dutifully arranges a belated burial for her ashes, 35 years on. It’s the sad, sad mood of Rasin’s film-as wistful and ephemeral as the androgynous and translucent Darling’s moment in the sun.