Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Don’t nobody move: Top 15 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2021)

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There was a passing of note for true crime aficionados last week:

Robert “Bobby” Gentile, one of the last surviving named suspects in the infamous heist of 13 artworks valued at $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, died on Friday. He was 85 years old and had suffered a stroke, according to his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.

“He denied having the paintings till his death,” McGuigan told the Boston Globe. “They say he was a bad guy, but he became a friend. He was the last of his kind.”

The Gardner robbery took place in the early morning hours following Boston’s spirited St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers gained access to the museum thanks to a night security guard, tied up the two watchmen on duty, and spent the next two hours stealing masterpieces by artists including Rembrandt van RijnJohannes VermeerEdgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.

The works have been missing ever since, despite the offer of a $10 million reward.

Keep your eyes peeled at those estate sales. You never know.

I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked to learn there is a Netflix docuseries about the robbery, entitled (wait for it…) This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. I haven’t seen it yet (there are only so many hours in the day), but I have seen my share of heist films …so I thought I’d  break into my video vault and pull out a few favorites:

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.

To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.

The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).

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Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.

The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the  atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.

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Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, The Lineup, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, this tough and  gritty crime drama/character study from 1973 stars Walter Matthau as a master thief/ex- stunt pilot who gets into hot water when he unwittingly robs a bank that washes money for the mob. I think it’s one of his best performances.  If the cheeky dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man.

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Criss-Cross – Burt Lancaster stars in this 1949 noir by revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.). Lancaster is an armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her marriage to a local mobster (Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his reluctant involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously using the airport’s security lock down for the visit of a foreign dignitary as cover. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk rich women out of their savings.

Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. It’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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$ (Dollars) – In this 1971 film from writer-director Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty is a bank security expert who uses intel  from his sex worker girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch several safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank (the boxes belong to criminals). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.

What sets this apart from standard heist capers is a chase sequence that  seems to run through most of Germany and takes up 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great Quincy Jones score.

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Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it features the planning and execution of several heists and delivers exciting action sequences, at its heart it is a character study.

Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship between the cops and the robbers, but by drawing  parallels between the characters’ personal lives he illustrates  how at the end of the day, they basically seek the same things in life (they only differ in how they go about “getting” it). De Niro and Pacino only have one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.

The great supporting cast includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.

Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.

Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the  theme song, “Burning Bridges”.

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The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (also recommended!). Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. Also in the cast: scene-stealer Marie Windsor, who plays an entertainingly trashy femme fatale.

Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted for the screenplay (adapted from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Stories have circulated that Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing, when it was allegedly Thompson who contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other genre films of the era. Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative crime caper is cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Quentin Tarantino clearly “borrowed” from The Killing for his 1991 caper Reservoir Dogs).

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The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios  concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together is a beautiful thing.

William Rose scripted (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to helm one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957.

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Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and Billy Wilder is said to have made some non-credited contributions to the script.

To be sure, it’s a vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.

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That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.

Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmerz; this subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same principal cast would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.

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Topkapi– I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively lighthearted 1964 romp over his darker and more esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for this list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?

The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum.

There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery to drink in. Entertaining fare.

…And just for fun:

Happy Marxist Day: The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

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“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”

– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:

Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.

Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:

Oh, dear.

(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)

Is social justice the same as socialism?

Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”

Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.

Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.

Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle

So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?

Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?

In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:

…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.

Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.

However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).

In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).

Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.

You’ve worked hard, so here’s a holiday bonus…my Top 10 Labor Day movies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing us out, Billy Bragg…

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 school flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2021)

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It was the time of year just after the summer’s gone
When August and September just become memories of songs
To be put away with the summer clothes
And packed up in the attic for another year

-from “Indian Summer” by The Dream Academy

I know that this is silly (I’m 65 years old, fergawdsake)- but as soon as the last week of August rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I’ll have to go to bed early. By the way, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate, here are my Top 10 show-and-tell picks:

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The Blackboard Jungle– This 1955 social drama is the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) tackles an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents (or as they used to call them – “juvenile delinquents”) who would rather steal hubcaps and rumble than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

The film still retains considerable power, despite dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern.

Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by the nom de plume “Ed McBain”). Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is featured in the soundtrack, which helped make the song a huge hit.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess my attachment to writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1993 recreation of a mid-70s high school milieu is due to the sentimental chord it touches for me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music  (I’d wager the boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay focuses on keen observation. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt.

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Election– Writer-director Alexander Payne and his frequent creative collaborator Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995 debut Citizen Ruth with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory (thinly cloaked as a teen comedy). Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect as psychotically perky overachiever Tracy Flick, who specializes in goading her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

To Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, the ambitious Tracy is running unopposed for school president. He encourages dim but charming Paul Metzler (Payne discovery Chris Klein, who had never acted before) to cash in on his popularity as a jock and run against her. Payne delivers laughs, but never pulls his punches; he flings open the drapes to offer an unflinching look at suburban America’s  dark side (similar to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, released the same year).

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards. Oh…and a kid named Sean Penn, as the quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe managed to pass himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, this 2010 film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a young freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story lies in his past. The personal sacrifices he made for his ideals are revealed slowly; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch. Unique and inspiring.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think; Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy, That Sinking Feeling, Housekeeping) is a master of low-key anarchy. Those Scottish accents can make for tough going, but it’s worth the effort.

Also in the cast: Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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if…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut of Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of lads who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, one could argue that if…. could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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Mandy– England’s Ealing Studios are chiefly remembered for churning out a slew of classic comedies. Director Alexander Mackendrick was responsible for several  (including Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit), but also made this outstanding 1952 drama about a 7-year old girl (Mandy Miller).

Congenitally deaf since birth, Mandy has been coddled by her well-meaning parents (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) her whole life. While this has “protected” her in a fashion, it has also made her completely insular and socially dysfunctional. When Mandy’s mother hears about a school that specializes in teaching deaf children to speak using new progressive methods, she lobbies her skeptical husband to enroll their daughter. He reluctantly agrees. Mandy’s journey makes for an incredibly moving story.

Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham adapted the intelligent script from Hilda Lewis’ novel “The Day is Ours”. An added sense of realism stems from use of many non-actors; e.g. Mandy’s classmates, who were real-life students from a school for deaf children (Miller was not deaf, which makes her heart wrenching performance more remarkable; particularly in her unforgettable “breakthrough” scene).

The film had a profound impact in the U.K., changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities, who had been traditionally marginalized (if not shunned altogether or considered mentally deficient). Jack Hawkins gives one of his finest performances as Mandy’s teacher. A beautiful film.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier trades his switchblade for a lesson plan; the student becomes teacher. This well-acted 1967 classroom drama offered a twist on the prevalent narrative of its day. Audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; but here you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly, white British working-class students.

It’s a tour de force for James Clavell, who directed, wrote and produced. The “culture clash” narrative is not surprising; as it is prevalent in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a great “swinging 60s” time capsule, with an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, as well as an appearance by the Mindbenders (featuring future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also in the cast: Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance), Suzy Kendall, Christian Roberts, and future rock star Michael Des Barres (the lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).

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Twenty-Four Eyes– This drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. It’s a simple yet deeply resonant tale about the long-term relationship that develops between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”, giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later introduced it to Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiment.

…and to sing us out, The Dream Academy

War(s) on Terror: 20 years and 10 films later

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2021)

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Now a note to the President, and the Government, and the judges of this place
We’re still waitin’ for you to bring our troops home, clean up that mess you made
‘Cause it smells of blood and money across the Iraqi land
But its so easy here to blind us with your united we stand

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

With the 20th anniversary of September 11th looming amid the political fireworks surrounding America’s ongoing “final” troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more than enough analyses (scholarly or otherwise) regarding the whys and wherefores of America’s wars on terror to go around lately, so I won’t add to the din. Besides-that’s above my pay grade. I’m just “the movie guy” around these parts.

I was perusing my 15 years of reviews and was surprised at the number of documentaries and feature films related to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have covered. Collectively, these films not only paint a broad canvas of these endless wars themselves, but put the full spectrum of humanity on display, from “the better angels of our nature” to the absolute worst (mostly the worst).

So in lieu of a 3,000-word dissertation, I’ve culled 9 films from my archives that perhaps best represent what’s gone down “over there” (and on the home front) over the last 20 years since the World Trade Center towers fell, and one film that serves as a preface. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call this a “top 10” list, so let’s just call it, “food for thought”.

Pray for peace.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the snappy dialog for director Mike Nichols’ political satire. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? While a (mostly) true story, it plays like a fairy tale now; although in view of recent events we know the Afghan people didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. (Full review)

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Fair Game – Doug Liman’s slightly uneven 2010 dramatization of the “Plame affair” and the part it played in the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco may hold more relevance now, with the benefit of hindsight. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two memoirs, The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the opening scenes, which give the impression you may be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be speculative in nature. Due to the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

However, the most important part of the couple’s story was the political fallout that transpired once Valerie was “outed” by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Liman wisely shifts the focus to depicting how Wilson and Plame weathered this storm together, and ultimately stood up to the Bush-Cheney juggernaut of “alternative facts” that helped sell the American public on Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full review)

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The Kill Team – In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. For as long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. (Full review)

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The Messenger – I think this is the film that comes closest to getting the harrowing national nightmare of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “right”. Infused with sharp writing, smart direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that sneaks up and really gets inside you, haunting you long after the credits roll.

First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson are outstanding. I think this film is to the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire what The Deer Hunter was to Vietnam. It’s that good…and just as devastating. (Full review)

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Son of Babylon – This heartbreaking Iraqi drama from 2010 is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – I once saw a fascinating TV documentary called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook (discovered decades after the war) that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

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

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

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in this documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us? A disturbing, yet compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review)

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Stop/Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio.

A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran. Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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W – No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once you watch his 2008 take on the life and times of George W. Bush (uncannily played by Josh Brolin), I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the end of his second term.

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He caught some flak for dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some took umbrage at another one of the underlying themes in Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me. (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

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Zero Dark Thirty – “Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

But that’s just me. Perhaps the film is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release back in 2013 would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice I said “nearly”. But if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting. The best I can do is arm you with those caveats; so you will have to judge for yourself. (Full review)

…and one more thing

2 weeks ago I posted a review of Mariam Ghani’s new documentary What We Left Unfinished, which takes a rare look at the Afghan film industry, and how a group of filmmakers kept it flourishing during Afghanistan’s Communist era (1978 to 1991). Earlier this week, it was announced that tickets purchased via Dekanalog Eventive will go to the Emergency Funds For Afghan Artists Go Fund Me organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. You will find more detailed information and latest updates here.

Like we did last summer: Top 15 Rock Musicals

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2021)

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Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off Summer like an all-American holiday that encourages mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with a case of Diet Dr. Pepper and an armload of my favorite rock musicals.

For your consideration (or condemnation) here are my Top 15 rock ‘n’ roll musicals. Per usual, I present them in no ranking order. For those about to rock…I salute you.

Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, backstage squabbles, record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day.

Indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does real life indie rocker/Chapel Hill music scenester Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as the Zen-like road manager (director Schultz is one of McMillan’s former band mates).

The original soundtrack is an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have the catchy signature tune, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.

The Commitments – “Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some respects, The Commitments is an expansion of Parker’s 1980 film Fame; except here the scenario switches from New York to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working-class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member/musician Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his success-hungry hustler/manager character with chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert.

The film includes performances by the original Shadows (Richards’ backup band), featuring guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are dopey).

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 cleverly tailored 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 it feels just 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 (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and the fab title song.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls for a G.I., undergoes a less than perfect sex change so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park somewhere in Middle America. The desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out…he creates an alter-ego named Hedwig, puts a glam-rock band together, and sets out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired tale?

But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force by Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).

Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions).

Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example).

Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains A punk version of A Star is Born. This 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) built a cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot screenwriter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule.

Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat who breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk trio with her two cousins (played by Marin Kanter and then-15 year-old Laura Dern). They dub themselves The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto-riot grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way).

Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.

The Phantom of the Paradise – To describe writer-director Brian DePalma’s 1974 horror schlock-rock musical take-off on The Phantom of the Opera as “over the top” would be understatement.

Paul Williams (who composed the memorable soundtrack) chews all the available scenery as ruthless music mogul “Swan”, a man with a curious predilection for insisting his artists sign their (somewhat long-term) contracts in blood. One who becomes so beholden is Winslow (William Finely) a talented composer hideously disfigured in a freak accident (and that’s only the least of his problems). Jessica Harper plays the object of poor Winslow’s unrequited desire, who is slowly falling under Swan’s evil spell.

Musical highlights include the haunting ballad “Old Souls” (performed by Harper, who has a lovely voice) and “Life at Last”, a glam rock number performed by “The Undead”, led by a scene-stealing Gerrit Graham camping it up as the band’s lead singer “Beef”.

Quadrophenia –The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Towshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.

Phil Daniels gives an explosive, James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who (and ska)-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent.

Look for a very young (and much less beefier) Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.

Rock and Roll High School – In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.) R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 46 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who stumble into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but with such spirited performances (and musical numbers) you won’t notice. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her rep on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. But it’s a lot of fun-and I’ve watched it more times than I’d care to admit.

It does feature a strong female lead , free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy, high-spirited and filled to the brim with catchy power pop (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Musical highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.

Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy  Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually).  Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that comes from someone who genuinely loves  the music.

Great performances abound. Bill Nighy stands out in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes.

Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.

Tommy –There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell was not known for being subtle).

Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two band members have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear briefly).

The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”.

True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

Soldier’s things: a Memorial Day mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2021)

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Memorial Day, like war itself, stirs up conflicting emotions. First and foremost, grief…for those who have been taken away (and for loved ones left behind). But there’s also anger…raging at the stupidity of a species that has been hell-bent on self destruction since Day 1.

And so the songs I’ve curated for this playlist run that gamut; from honoring the fallen and offering comfort to the grieving, to questioning those in power who start wars and ship off the sons and daughters of others to finish them, to righteous railing at the utter fucking madness of it all, and sentiments falling somewhere in between.

The Doors- “The Unknown Soldier” – A eulogy; then…a wish.

Pete Seeger- “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” An excellent question. You may not like the answer. When will we ever learn?

Tom Waits- “Soldier’s Things” – Behold the power of a simple inventory. Kleenex on standby.

Bob Marley- “War”– Lyrics by Haile Selassie I. But you knew that.

The Isley Brothers- “Harvest for the World”Dress me up for battle, when all I want is peace/Those of us who pay the price, come home with the least.

Buffy Sainte Marie- “Universal Soldier”– Sacrifice has no borders.

Bob Dylan- “With God On Our Side” – Amen, and pass the ammunition.

John Prine- “Sam Stone” – An ode to the walking wounded.

Joshua James- “Crash This Train” – Just make it stop. Please.

Kate Bush- “Army Dreamers”– For loved ones left behind…

Posts with related themes:

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

The Kill Team

The Messenger

Tangerines

The Monuments Men

Inglourious Basterds

Five Graves to Cairo

King of Hearts

The Wind Rises & Generation War

City of Life and Death

Le Grande Illusion

Paths of Glory

Apocalypse Now

 

 

Long strange trip: 10 Offbeat Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2021)

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Sam: If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

— from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

With the summer travel season looming and increasing numbers of people receiving COVID vaccinations, I’m noticing more chatter about “things opening up” for aspiring vacationers:

European Union countries agreed on Wednesday to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions on non-EU visitors ahead of the summer tourist season, a move that could open the bloc’s door to all Britons and to vaccinated Americans.

Ambassadors from the 27 EU countries approved a European Commission proposal from May 3 to loosen the criteria to determine “safe” countries and to let in fully vaccinated tourists from elsewhere, EU sources said.

They are expected to set a new list this week or early next week. Based on data from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Britain and a number of other countries would meet the new criteria.

The United States would not, although Americans with proof of vaccination would be welcomed.

(via Reuters)

So we’re not quite there yet for carefree international travel. Buck up, little camper…on the domestic front, the AAA appears to be more optimistic than they were this time last year:

AAA Travel expects a significant rebound in the number of Americans planning to travel this Memorial Day holiday weekend. From May 27 through May 31, more than 37 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60% from last year when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000.

The expected strong increase in demand from last year’s holiday, which fell during the early phase of the pandemic, still represents 13%—or nearly 6 million—fewer travelers than in 2019. AAA urges those who choose to travel this year to exercise caution and take measures to protect themselves and others as the pandemic continues.

“As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and consumer confidence grows, Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions.” […]

Another factor contributing to the expected increase in travel this holiday is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recently updated guidance that fully vaccinated people can travel domestically at low risk to themselves, while taking proper precautions. It’s important to keep in mind that some local and state travel restrictions may still remain in place, however.

(via AAA website)

Speaking for myself, Mr. Frodo… if I take one more step beyond the grocery store, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been since last March. Being cautiously optimistic by nature, I’ll be sticking with the “stay-cation” for this upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

I do still plan on hitting the road though, via the magic of cinema. If you’d care to ride along, here are 10 road movies off the beaten path, but still well worth the trip.

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Badlands – With barely a dozen feature-length projects over nearly 50 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

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Detour – Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

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The Hit – Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

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The Hitch-hiker – This 1953 film noir (directed by Ida Lupino) is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).

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Race with the Devil – In this 1975 thriller, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

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Salesman – Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

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Stranger Than Paradise – With this 1984 indie, Jim Jarmusch established his formula: long static takes with deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, unveiling a strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

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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. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

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Until the End of the World – Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure . However, to see it as originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along-which is why I highly recommend the recently restored 267-minute director’s cut. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

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Wanda – This 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama is an under-seen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country.

When the judge scolds her for being late to a child custody hearing, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than her purse. Her long, strange road trip is only beginning.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography. A unique, unforgettable, and groundbreaking film. (Full review).

 

No boundary line: A Jazz Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus track!

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

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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

Here are my top 3:

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

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

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

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

Year nominated: 1974

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

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

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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

Year nominated: 1994

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

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

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

R.I.P. George Segal

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I was saddened to learn of George Segal’s passing earlier this week. I confess up front that I have zero awareness of his latter-career television work; but then again, I haven’t followed any network sitcoms with much interest since Seinfeld went off the air in 1998.

For me Segal’s visage will be forever associated with a streak of memorable film roles from the mid-60s through the late 70s (perusing his credits on the Internet Movie Database, I realized that apart from David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy Flirting with Disaster I have not seen any of Segal’s big screen work beyond Lost and Found (Melvin Frank’s disappointing 1979 sequel to his own 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class).

I will remember him for his masterful comic timing (he was the king of the reaction shot) but he also had great drama chops. He was also a decent banjo player (I searched in earnest for any instance where he may have jammed with Steve Martin…but alas, if it did happen, there is no extant footage). Here are my top 10 George Segal recommendations:

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Bye Bye Braverman – Viewer caution: This film contains graphic depictions of extreme Jewishness (I’m allowed to say that…I’ve lived it). A lesser-known gem from Sidney Lumet, this 1968 comedy-drama follows the escapades of four Manhattan intellectuals (Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Warden and Sorrell Booke) who pile into a red Beetle and spend a Sunday afternoon schlepping around Brooklyn searching for the funeral of a mutual friend who dropped dead following a coronary. Much middle-age angst ensues.

Episodic but bolstered by wonderful performances and several memorable scenes. My favorite involves a fender-bender with the great Godfrey Cambridge, playing a fast-talking cabbie who has converted to Judaism. Another great segment features Alan King as a rabbi giving an off-the wall eulogy. A scene where Segal delivers a soliloquy about modern society while strolling through a vast cemetery will now have added poignancy.

The screenplay was adapted from Wallace Markfield’s novel by Herb Sargent, who later become a top writer for Saturday Night Live from 1975-1995. Also in the cast: Phyllis Newman, Zohra Lampert and Jessica Walter (who also passed away this week, sadly).

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California Split – While it has its share of protracted scenes and an unhurried, naturalistic rhythm you expect from Robert Altman, I think this 1974 comedy-drama is the director’s tightest, most economical film; I would even venture it’s damn near perfect.

A pro gambler (Elliot Gould) and a compulsive gambler with a straight day job (Segal) bond after getting roughed up and robbed by a sore loser and his pals in a poker parlor parking lot. Gould invites Segal to sleep over at his place, a house he shares with two self-employed sex workers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). The men become gambling buddies. Soon they are mutual enablers, spiraling down the rabbit hole of their addiction.

The film doubles as a beautifully acted character study and a fascinating, documentary-like dive into the myopic, almost subterranean subculture of the degenerate gambler. As Roger Ebert put it so beautifully in his original review of the film: “This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it’s always five in the morning in a second-rate casino.” Perceptive screenplay by actor Joseph Walsh, who also has a great cameo as a menacing loan shark.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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LovingAmerican Beauty meets The Prisoner of Second Avenue in this 1970 sleeper, directed by the eclectic Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man, Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Segal is in his element as a freelance commercial illustrator and suburban dad on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dissatisfied with his own work, on the rocks with both his wife (Eva Marie Saint) and his Manhattan mistress (Janis Young), he’s fighting an existential uphill battle trying to keep everyone in his life happy.

The story builds slowly, culminating in a near-classic party scene up there with the one in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. Patient viewers will notice the film is well constructed and despite being made 50 years ago, still has much to say about modern manners and mores (all in the space of 90 minutes). The intelligent screenplay was adapted from J.M. Ryan’s novel by Don Devlin.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous sex worker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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The Terminal Man – Paging Dr. Jekyll! Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks.

Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Michael Crichton’s novel.

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A Touch of Class – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee who, following two chance encounters in London, realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

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Where’s Poppa? – If you are easily offended, do not go anywhere near this film. But if you believe nothing is sacred in comedy and enjoy laughing so hard that you plotz-see it.

Where do I start? Carl Reiner’s 1970 black comedy (adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel) concerns a New York City attorney (Segal) who lives in a cramped apartment with his senile mother (Ruth Gordon). Honoring a deathbed promise to his dearly departed poppa, Segal takes care of his mother (well, as best he can). She is a…handful.

The beleaguered Segal’s day begins with prepping his mother’s preferred breakfast of 6 orange slices and a heaping bowl of Pepsi and Lucky Charms (interestingly, in California Split Segal himself is served a breakfast of beer and Fruit Loops by the two sex workers).

His businessman brother (Ron Leibman) is too “busy” to help, so Segal must hire nurses to take care of ma while he’s at work. Unfortunately, she has a habit of driving them away with her over-the-top behavior. When Segal falls head-over-heels in love with the latest hire (Trish Van Devere, in a priceless performance), his thoughts about how he’s going to “take care” of ma and keep this blossoming romance abloom become…darker.

Segal was rarely so hilariously exasperated as he gets here, it’s Gordon’s best (and most outrageous) comic performance, and the supporting cast (which includes Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino and Garrett Morris) is aces. Again, this film is not for all tastes (it would never get green-lighted now) …but rates as one of my all-time favorite comedies.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Here are some additional George Segal films worth a look:

King Rat (1965; WW2 drama, dir. Bryan Forbes)

The Quiller Memorandum (1966; Cold War spy thriller, dir. Michael Anderson)

Blume in Love (1973; romantic comedy-drama, dir. Paul Mazursky)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976; western comedy, dir. Melvin Frank)

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977; crime caper/social satire, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978; comedy-mystery, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Flirting with Disaster (1996; comedy, dir. David O. Russell)