Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Any world (that I’m welcome to): 10 Sci-fi favorites

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2021)

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I thought I’d paw through the “sci-fi” section of my collection and share ten of my favorites. Keep in mind that these are personal favorites; I was careful not to title the post “Top 10 Sci-fi Movies of All Time” (there is no more surefire way to spark a virtual bare-knuckled fracas). Anyway, here are 10 off-world adventures awaiting you now…

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed opus. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure every detail, from the environment of prehistoric humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

In appreciation of this effort, at least once a year I will schedule a 3 hour block of time to turn off my phone, shut down my laptop, sit down calmly, take a stress pill, re-watch Kubrick’s masterpiece…and think things over.

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Blade Runner – What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is. Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir is set a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine. The “blade runner” of note is Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants.

Also in the cast: Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos, Brion James and Daryl Hannah. The film’s amazing production design makes it one of cinema’s most immersive “speculative futures” this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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

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Fantastic Planet – Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally  La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster. Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing.

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

Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way. The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop. You know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!

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

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The Lathe of Heaven – Adapted by Diane English from the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel and directed by Fred Barzyk and David Loxton, this film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring).

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Man Facing Southeast – Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s 1986 drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case. While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth – “Get out of my head. All of you.” If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie.

Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate. A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry.

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The Quiet Earth -Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance in this 1985 film from New Zealand. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovskiy territory. Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek on a slow night.

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Slaughterhouse Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

Stoned, immaculate: 10 essential albums of 1971

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2021)

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Have you heard the good word? Brothers and sisters, can I testify?

I joined the church in the early 70s, when I was a teenager. The Church of Christgau. I worshiped at the altar of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and studied the Holy C’s: Creem, Circus, and Crawdaddy. Yea, I found enlightenment poring through those sacred tablets and learning the words of the prophets: Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ed Ward, Richard Meltzer, Lisa Robinson, Jon Landau, Cameron Crowe, Paul Krassner, et.al.

Oh, I was aware of music prior to the 70s; growing up as I did during the golden age of top 40, I have those “super sounds of the 60s and 70s” burned into my neurons, (consciously or not) to this day. But it wasn’t until the late 60s (after buying my first FM radio) that I came to realize my developing taste in music wasn’t necessarily reflected by the pop charts. I couldn’t put a name to it, as “classic rock” was yet to be labeled as such.

By the late 60s, the genre broadly labeled “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds; “splintering”, as it were. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock, funk-rock, Latin-rock, Southern rock, etc.

In the wake of The Beatles’ influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which notably yielded no singles) recording artists began to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a “whole”, with a unifying theme at its center.

This was moving too fast for AM, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad stop sets. Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by the end of the decade, providing a platform for deep album cuts.

Consequently the early 70s was an exciting and innovative era for music, which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of since. For a generation, this music mattered…it wasn’t just background noise or something to dance to. This beautiful exploding headband of sounds demanded its scribes. And thus it was that God (or somebody who plays him on TV) created the “music journalist” to help spread the gospel, blues and jazz that became Rock.

And he saw that it was Goode. And I have been a member of the congregation ever since.

It should be obvious to anyone who has followed my weekly scribbles at Hullabaloo (great googly moogly…have I been doing this for 15 years?!) that I primarily write about film. I love writing about film. But my first love (we never forget our first love) was music. In fact, my first published piece was a review of King Crimson’s A Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, in 1973. Granted, it was for my high school newspaper and upwards of dozens must have read it, but for that brief shining moment…I was Lester Bangs (in my mind).

Which brings us back to 1971. Hard to believe that was 50 years ago. An outstanding year for music, with an embarrassment of riches. Sifting a “top 10” from that heap of classic vinyl was crazy-making (if I hadn’t allowed myself the “next 10” at the bottom of the post, my head would have exploded). I’m sure I’ve “overlooked” or “misplaced” your favorite…let’s just say it’s duly noted in advance. So here you go, in alphabetical order…

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AqualungJethro Tull

After toying with various combinations of blues, English folk, jazz, and straight-ahead hard rock, Jethro Tull finally found the winning formula in their 4th outing that defines their “sound” to this day.

While songwriter/lead vocalist/flutist/acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson historically scoffs at the suggestion, Aqualung is generally regarded as Tull’s first concept album (although arguably the follow-up, 1972’s Thick as a Brick fits the definition of ‘concept album’ more snugly). There is definitely some sharp running commentary about organized religion and associative societal issues in this particular song cycle. Regardless, the song craft is superb and the band is in top form; especially guitarist Martin Barre, who establishes himself here as one of rock’s greatest axe men.

Choice cuts: “Aqualung”, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, “Mother Goose”, “Up to Me”, “Hymn 43”, “Locomotive Breath”

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BlueJoni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s 4th album is so honest and intimate that every time I listen to it I feel a bit awkward…like I’m intruding on someone’s personal space. This extraordinary set features minimalist arrangements, giving ample room for her angelic pipes to breathe and soar. Mitchell accompanies herself on guitar, dulcimer and piano, with a little help from friends James Taylor, Steve Stills and Russ Kunkel. The Supremes covered “All I Want” on their 1972 album The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, and Nazareth covered “This Flight Tonight” on their 1973 album Loud ‘n’ Proud.

Choice cuts: “All I Want”, “Blue”, “This Flight Tonight”, “A Case of You”, “Carey”, “River”.

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Electric WarriorT. Rex

Flying saucer, take me away. The year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mothership with their breakthrough album. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before going their separate ways in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the (literal) poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie) contribute backing vocals on most tracks.

Choice cuts: “Mambo Sun”, “Jeepster”, “Cosmic Dancer”, “Bang a Gong”, “Planet Queen”, “Life’s a Gas”.

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L.A. WomanThe Doors

The first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick. Sadly the album the song was taken from, L.A. Woman was the last Doors LP released while Morrison was alive (he died shortly after). Jim sounds just like the bluesy, boozy, Baudelaire he was at the end…but clearly the music remained his “special friend”.

Choice cuts: “Love Her Madly”, “Been Down So Long”, “L.A. Woman”, “Hyacinth House”, “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”, “Riders on the Storm”.

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Led Zeppelin IVLed Zeppelin

By the time they began working on a 4th album, Led Zeppelin had already set a high bar for themselves. 1969 saw the release of their eponymous debut and its hard-rocking follow-up Led Zeppelin II, and in 1970 they one-upped themselves with the eclectic Led Zeppelin III, which displayed influences ranging from Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal, country, and bluegrass to Middle Eastern music. 

As history has proven, Led Zeppelin IV (also known as “The Runes Album”) not only easily cleared that bar, but features a bevy of cuts that have become “Classic Rock” FM staples. One cut in particular…“Stairway to Heaven”…has become the most instantly recognizable power ballad of all time (as well as the bane of ear-fatigued guitar store employees).

Choice cuts: “Black Dog”, “Battle of Evermore”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Misty Mountain Hop”,  “Going to California”, “When the Levee Breaks”.

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Master of Reality – Black Sabbath

For me, Master of Reality is the most “Sabbath-y” of Sabbath albums. For their third outing, the band had the luxury of more studio time than on the previous two albums. Consequently they did more experimenting; e.g. guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler tuned their guitars down to D# and C# standard on several tracks, creating an even more ominous “sound” than on Black Sabbath and Paranoid (Iommi had already been down-tuning for live sets for some time, to compensate for chronic pain he suffered from two severed fingertips on his fretting hand). While there are plenty of heavy, riff-driven rockers in this set, there are also interludes of gentility, like Iommi’s lovely acoustic instrumental “Orchid” and the Moody Blues-ish “Solitude”.

Choice cuts: “Sweet Leaf”, “After Forever”, “Children of the Grave”, “Into the Void”, “Orchid”, “Solitude”.

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Tapestry – Carole King

I think of this as Carole King’s “first” solo album; but it’s really her second. Let’s be honest…who remembers her 1970 debut Writer? While Writer has some great tracks, Tapestry is so perfect that if King had decided to retire then and there, her place as one of America’s greatest songwriters would be assured.

Besides, she had already been composing hits for a decade prior to stepping into the spotlight as a performer herself (for a period in the 60s, she and then-husband Gerry Goffin co-wrote hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “The Loco-motion”, “Go Away, Little Girl”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “I’m Into Something Good”, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, “Goin’ Back”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”). Out of the gate with those songwriting chops, plus a beautiful voice and prowess on keys? Fuhgetabouit!

Choice cuts: “I Feel the Earth Move”, “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late”, “Home Again”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”.

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There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone’s 5th album marked a radical departure from the band’s established formula of good-time, up-tempo funk & roll; and it had nearly everything to do with band leader Sly Stone’s increasing drug use. It is not only detectable in Sly’s junked-out vocalizing on many tracks, but in the darker, introspective lyrics and a palpable tension in the music. Almost perversely, Sly’s slipping creative focus created a new kind of laid back funk groove that was influential in its own right (especially thanks to liberal use of drum machines). This album has aged like a fine wine.

Choice cuts: “Just Like a Baby”, “Poet”, “Family Affair”, “(You Caught Me) Smilin’”, “Runnin’ Away”, “Thank You For Talkin’ to Me Africa”.

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Who’s Next – The Who

How do you follow up Tommy? Surely, Pete Townshend was feeling performance pressure, after the Who’s ambitious 1969 2-LP rock opera was so enthusiastically received by critics and live audiences. Sating fans with their now classic LP Live at Leeds in 1970 as a placeholder between studio projects paid off handsomely, as demonstrated by this memorable set…which for my money remains their most enduring album.

Comprised of several songs originally intended for a scrapped multimedia project called Lifehouse and top flight new material, the superbly produced Who’s Next suggested a progression to a more sophisticated sonic landscape for the band, albeit with no shortage of the Who’s patented power and majesty. For example, the band incorporated synthesizers into the mix for the first time, as well as utilizing guest musicians on several cuts (most notably violinist Dave Arbus and pianist Nicky Hopkins). One of the greatest albums of any year.

Choice cuts: “Baby O’Reilly”, “Bargain”, “The Song is Over”, “Goin’ Mobile”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

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The Yes Album – Yes

Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, getting lost in Roger Dean’s otherworldly cover art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gate-fold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent).

Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”). This was the third studio album for Yes, and it was then and remains now, my favorite of theirs. Perfection.

Choice cuts: “Yours is No Disgrace”, “Starship Trooper”, “I’ve Seen All Good People”, “Perpetual Change”. 

 

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more gems from 1971 worth a spin:

A Better LandBrian Auger & the Oblivion Express

Broken BarricadesProcol Harum

Hunky DoryDavid Bowie

In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster

KillerAlice Cooper

Live at Fillmore EastThe Allman Brothers

Madman Across the WaterElton John

Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron

Sticky FingersThe Rolling Stones

What’s Going OnMarvin Gaye

A dozen roses: 12 romantic comedies for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2021)

With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my 12 favorite romantic comedies with you. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

Amelie-Yes, I know this one has its share of detractors-but writer-director Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film (co-written with Gillaume Laurant) has stolen my heart for life.

Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously like her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You will have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts.

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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 gaga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. 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.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys in getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as the lead singer of 80s new wavers Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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Modern Romance (1981) – In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the inventor of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor who works for American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is becoming exasperated with his penchant to impulsively break up with her one day, then beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly a sequence where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his best roles) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie. Brooks’ brother, the late Bob Einstein (a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

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Next Stop, Wonderland – Writer/director Brad Anderson’s intelligent and easygoing fable about love and serendipity made me a Hope Davis fan for life. Davis plays a laid back Bostonian who finds her love life set adrift after her pompous environmental activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly decides that dashing off to save the earth is more important than sustaining their relationship.

Her story is paralleled with that of a charming and unassuming single fellow (Alan Gelfant) who aspires to become a marine biologist. Both parties find themselves politely deferring to well-meaning friends and relatives who are constantly trying to fix them up with dates. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that these two may be destined to end up together. The film seems to have been inspired by A Man and a Woman, right down to its breezy bossa nova/samba soundtrack.

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Play it Again, Sam – I don’t know what it is about this particular Woody Allen vehicle (directed by Herbert Ross), but no matter how many times I have viewed it over the years, I laugh just as hard at all the one-liners as I did the first time I saw it. Annie Hall and Manhattan may be his most highly lauded and artistically accomplished projects, but for pure “laughs per minute”, I would nominate this 1972 entry, with a screenplay adapted by Allen from his own original stage version.

Allen portrays a film buff with a Humphrey Bogart obsession. He fantasizes that he’s getting pointers from Bogie’s ghost (played to perfection by Jerry Lacy) who advises him on how to “be a man” and attract the perfect mate. He receives some more pragmatic assistance from his best friends, a married couple (Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) who fix him up with a series of women (the depictions of the various dating disasters are hilarious beyond description). A classic.

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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of writer-director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men, who are all quite aware of each other’s existence.

Lee steals his own film by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as each jockeys for the alpha position (and makes some keen observations regarding sexist machismo and male vanity). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. A milestone for modern indie cinema.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. A genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams), McElwee has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the funniest and most thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Viewers weaned on reality TV and Snapchat may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition.

Sherman’s March actually began as a history piece, a project aiming to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth a peek as well.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not usually mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas.

Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a few lovers herself. Love in all its guises is represented by a bevy of richly drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (the inspiration for Bergman admirer Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy).

Fast-paced, literate, and sensuous, Smiles of a Summer Night has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy. Gorgeously photographed by Gunnar Fischer (he was also cinematographer for Bergman’s classics Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal).

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The Tall Guy –Deftly directed by British TV comic Mel Smith with a high-brow/low-brow blend of sophisticated cleverness and riotous vulgarity (somehow he makes it work), this is the stuff cult followings are made of.

Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by an English nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a London stage comic beloved by his audience but an absolute backstage terror to cast and crew. The most hilariously choreographed sex scene ever put on film alone is worth the price of admission; and the extended set-piece, a staged musical version of The Elephant Man (a brilliant takeoff on Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me on the floor. An underrated gem.

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

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

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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. George Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

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. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

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Two for the Road – A swinging 60s version of Scenes from a Marriage. Director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) whips up a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true, lasting commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 6, 2021)

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I know football fans are jazzed this weekend, and I don’t want to be a Gloomy Gus, but

Skip the parties that could turn Super Bowl Sunday into Superspreader Sunday, experts and government officials are pleading ahead of America’s biggest sports day.

This year’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes as the nation remains in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, and as new variants are spreading. On a weekend usually defined by packed in bars and gatherings in living rooms, with fans screaming at televisions and sharing spreads of finger food, authorities are urging smaller, quieter celebrations.

“I can’t say it seriously enough: I want everyone who is celebrating this Sunday’s game to be back next year, and that means not allowing 2,000 more Kansas Citians to die,” Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas said in an interview. “I’m a lifelong fan of the Chiefs, but I am more of a fan of people’s families sticking around and staying alive.”

Me too! Long-time listener, first-time caller…BIG fan of staying alive! Surely by now, the harsh realities of the pandemic have sunk in, and people will heed the warnings.

Uh, right?

Already, though, there are signs a pandemic-weary public may not heed yet another call to forgo tradition. In the host city of Tampa, parties are being planned with performances by top musical acts. In Kansas City, news that no parade would follow a potential Chiefs victory drew a backlash from officials in a neighboring county.

A quarter of Americans plan to attend a Super Bowl party, a recent Seton Hall Sports Poll found. […]

Indoor Super Bowl parties are “creating a perfect environment to accelerate new transmission chains, because that person gets infected, doesn’t realize it, sees their parents,” said David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“When given an opportunity,” he added, “a more transmissible strain will spread more rapidly.”

Oh, dear. A quarter of Americans?! Let’s see, the U.S. population is 328,000,000; divided by 4=82,000,000. Yeah, but what percentage out of that number are football fans? Not a fan myself, but how popular is football in America, compared to other sports, I wonder?

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Oh, crap. Well, by all means enjoy the game this Sunday, but as safely as possible. This is a reachable goal. Speaking of goals-why not kick off Superbowl Weekend by watching some sports movies? I’ve put together a list of 10 personal faves for you. Ladies and gentlemen…start your remotes! And hey…save some of that guac for me (no double dipping).

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Bend it Like Beckham Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s an insightful coming of age tale and a rumination on small town life.

Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham – Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

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Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding as the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. Ritchie’s film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Like most character studies, this film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so well fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft.

Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family; which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics.

Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than you’d expect. A winner.

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North Dallas Forty – Nick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later on in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic and empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deliver fearless performances. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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Slapshot – Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this puckish satire (sorry), directed by George Roy Hill. In a desperate play to save the team, Newman decides to pull out all the stops and play dirty.

The entire ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease bit in film history and the cheerfully truculent “Hanson Brothers” are a hoot.

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This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young, Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.

Extra innings!

Here are 10 more recommendations:

Any Given Sunday

Bang the Drum Slowly

Cool Runnings

Field of Dreams

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Natural

Raging Bull

Rocky

When We Were Kings

No music, no life: Top 10 music docs of the decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2021)

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Without music, life would be a mistake. – Friedrich Nietzsche

After 11 months of hunkering down, I’d imagine “Netflix fatigue” is setting in for some (you know…when you spend more time scrolling for something “interesting” than actually watching anything). Buck up, little camper… there are still many worthwhile films-you just need to know where to look. With that in mind, I’ve combed my 2011-2020 review archives and picked out the 10 top music docs of the decade. If music be the food of love, play on!

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the “power pop” genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine 2013 rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados.

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Gimme DangerWell it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA/It’s another year for me and you/Another year with nuthin’ to do/Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun/And now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my, and a boo-hoo (from “1969” by The Stooges)

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor).

While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. (Full review)

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Heart of a Dog – I love Laurie Anderson’s voice. In fact, it was love at first sound, from the moment I heard “O Superman” wafting from my FM radio late one night back in the early 1980s. It was The Voice…at once maternal, sisterly, wise, reassuring, confiding, lilting, impish. Hell, she could read the nutritional label on a box of corn flakes out loud…and to me it would sound artful, thoughtful, mesmerizing.

It’s hard to describe her 2015 film; I’m struggling mightily not to pull out the good old reliable “visual tone poem”. (Moment of awkward silence). Okay, I blinked first…it’s a visual tone poem, alright? Even Anderson herself is a somewhat spectral presence in her own movie, which (like the artist herself), is an impressionistic mixed media mélange of drawings, animations, video, and even vintage super 8 family movies from her childhood.

You could say that Death is Anderson’s co-pilot on this journey to the center of her mind. But it’s not a sad journey. It’s melancholy and deeply reflective, but it’s never sad. (Full review)

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Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue – In Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.

“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians, and significant others.

Despite undercurrents of melancholy and sadness and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors. (Full review)

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice – Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of this intimate 2019 documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). The film is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).

Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.

For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.

What struck me most as I watched the film is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration. (Full review)

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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool  – Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing 2019 documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

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Produced by George Martin – While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in this engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary. The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how betrayed he felt when John Lennon curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who infamously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2018 documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments, a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film.

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The Theory of Obscurity  – As defined in The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) the Residents are not a “band” …so much as they are an ongoing art installation.

In his 2016 film, Director Don Hardy Jr. took on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery).

Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word.

The Residents have been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them. (Full review)

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

This 2015 documentary was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.

Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with Brian Wilson (most notably, on the Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds album) and backing sessions with just about any other chart-topping artists of the era you would care to mention.

Tedesco has curated fascinating vintage studio footage, as well as archival and present-day interviews with key players. You also hear from some of the producers who utilized their talents. Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes…and they have got some great stories to tell. Tedesco’s film is a celebration of a unique era of popular art that (love it or loathe it), literally provided the “soundtrack of our lives” for some of us of a (ahem) certain age. (Full review).

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2021)

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I’m taking a break from sticky floors and stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then 20 (damn my OCD!).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and occasionally re-watch favorite episodes as an (alleged) adult. You can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down here.

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously struck Ricky Gervais’ fancy.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect many of the show runners of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born when Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; but its cheeky social satire is a perfect match.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

 

 

Let’s party like it’s 1929: Top 10 Great Depression Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2021)

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I’m not running for office, so I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been a tough week. Not just for me, personally…but for Democracy and junk. Most of today, I was trying (really trying, gentle reader) to finish up a review for you of a couple of new films, but it wasn’t working. I haven’t been able to concentrate very well since the events of this past Wednesday. I just…can’t.

So I was texting with my pal Digby, to give her a heads up that I might just take a breather this week. Or perhaps I could just find something from my archives to recycle that would be apropos to the current news cycle. My first thought was “conspiracy a go-go”…but then I remembered I just recycled that one back in November on the anniversary of the JFK assassination. Besides, I don’t think we need to get that dark just now. “What about something on fascism?” (Digby helpfully texted). Yes! I thought. A capital idea (Capitol?).

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t find a post I published the day after the current occupant of the White House was inaugurated that makes a perfect bookend for the imminent denouement of said occupant’s rent-free overstayed welcome in our collective unconscious . Er, enjoy?

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2017)

Yesterday, after putting my head down on the desk for a spell (which I haven’t done since kindergarten), in order to process the inaugural address, I felt compelled to do a Google search using the key words “Fascism” and “ideal conditions” – and I found this:

Fascism begins by promising to make the country strong again, to restore pride. It wants to help, it wants to build a better country, it wants to improve your life. It wants to challenge a corrupt establishment and change a broken system. It wants to get people working again and get tough on crime. It doesn’t present an image of violent thugs to you, instead it shows the face of ordinary respectable people, people just like you, who have had enough. […]

So it starts with things a lot of people find attractive: national pride, restoration of glory, fighting the establishment. Then it pushes this further and further to the extreme. The nationalism becomes more extreme. Not only are we the best people, but all others are inferior. They only appear better because they cheat, they lie, they steal. The establishment is corrupt, the system is rigged, it is undeserving of support, it is illegitimate. The opponents are crooks, they should be put in jail. The media is suppressing the facts, censoring the truth, spreading lies, their dishonesty must be silenced.  Democracy only leads to indecisive and ineffective politicians, it only elects liars too corrupt to serve the people. If only we had a strong and decisive ruler, then we could solve the country’s problems. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.

-from a post by Robert Nielsen (Whistling in the Wind blog)

The author is explaining how Fascism was able to flourish in Europe between the wars, but there are obvious parallels with the current political climate (in Europe and the U.S.).

So, with that cheery thought in mind, and in the interest of applying what I call cinematic aversion therapy, here’s my Top 10 Great Depression Movies. Study them well, because you know what “they” say: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz- When you think of the Depression in terms of film and literature, it tends to vibe America-centric. In reality, the economic downturn between wars was a global phenomenon; things were literally “tough all over”. You could say Germany had a jumpstart (economically speaking, everything below the waist was kaput by the mid 1920s). In October of 1929 (interesting historical timing), Alfred Doblin’s epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was published, then adapted into a film in 1931 directed by Phil Jutzi.

It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that the ultimate film version emerged as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour opus (made for German TV but also distributed as a feature film). It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate this emotionally draining epic in a few lines; it is by turns one of the most shocking, transcendent, maddening and soul-scorching films you’ll ever see. If that time investment is too daunting, you can always opt for Cabaret!

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Bonnie and Clyde– The gangster movie meets the art house in this 1967 offering from director Arthur Penn. There is much more to this influential masterpiece than the oft-referenced operatic crescendo of violent death in the closing frames; particularly of note was the ingenious way its attractive antiheroes were posited to appeal to the counterculture zeitgeist of the 1960s, even though the film was ostensibly a period piece. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were nowhere near as charismatic as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty…but we don’t care, do we? The outstanding cast includes Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and Gene Wilder in his movie debut.

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Bound for Glory– “This machine kills Fascists”. There’s only one man to whom Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen must kowtow-and that’s Woody Guthrie. You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of America’s premier protest songwriter/social activist. David Carradine gives one of his finest performances, and does a credible job with his own singing and playing. Haskell Wexler’s outstanding cinematography earned him a well-deserved Oscar. The film may feel a bit overlong and slow in spots if you aren’t particularly fascinated by Guthrie’s story; but I think it is just as much about the Depression itself, and perhaps more than any other film on this list, it succeeds as a “total immersion” back to that era.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful film or John Steinbeck’s classic source novel, so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the heartbreak and struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take (real or imagined) comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.”

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Inserts-If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

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King of the Hill– Steven Soderbergh’s exquisitely photographed film (somewhat reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon) is a bittersweet rendering of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era tale about young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who lives with his parents and kid brother in a decrepit hotel. After his sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is sent away for convalescence, his kid brother is packed off to stay with relatives, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road as a traveling salesman, leaving Aaron to fend for himself.

The Grand Hotel-style network narrative provides a microcosm of those who live through such times. The film is full of wonderful moments of insight into the human condition. The cast includes Karen Allen, Adrian Brody, Elizabeth McGovern and Spaulding Gray.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC version)-I’ve always preferred the original 1978 British television production of this to the Americanized theatrical version released several years afterwards. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), it is rife with the usual Potter obsessions: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by the occasional, incongruous song and dance number.

Bob Hoskins is outstanding as a married traveling sheet music salesman in Depression-era England whose life takes interesting Potter-esque turns once he becomes smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two extremely creepy brothers. Probably best described as a film noir musical.

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Sullivan’s Travels-A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film.

Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into more than he had bargained for.

Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. The Coen Brothers borrowed the title of the fictional film within the film for their own unique take on the Depression, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!” This richly decadent allegory about the human condition (adapted from Horace McCoy’s novel) is one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Director Sydney Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxes the wooden Michael Sarrazin into his finest performance. The powerful ending is devastating and difficult to shake off.

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Thieves Like Us-This loose remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film noir classic They Live by Night is the late Robert Altman’s most underrated film. It is often compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but stylistically speaking, the two films could not be farther apart. Altman’s tale of bank-robbing lovers on the lam (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) is far less flashy and stylized, but ultimately more affecting thanks to a consistently naturalistic, elegiac tone throughout.

Carradine and Duvall really breathe life into their doomed couple; every moment of intimacy between them (not just sexual) feels warm, touching, and genuine-which gives the film real heart. Altman adapted the screenplay (with co-writers Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham) from the same source novel (by Edward Anderson) that inspired Ray’s earlier film.

If you really must pry: Top 10 Films of 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2020)

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As the year closes, it’s time to pick the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2020. In a “normal” year, I usually watch and review between 50 and 60 first-run features and documentaries. This year, the tally was…substantially lower. 2020 was challenging for a movie critic (well…at least speaking for myself, as a low-rung player). Anyway (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Boogie Nights), that’s an “M.P.” (My Problem), not a “Y.P.” (Your Problem). Per usual my picks are listed alphabetically, not by rank.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Anyone who has ever spent a few hours down the pub knows there are as many descriptive terms for “drunks” as the Inuits have for “snow” . Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…et.al. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in this extraordinary (and controversial) genre-defying Sundance hit.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. (Full review)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – So how did the world become (to quote from one of Paddy Cheyefsky’s classic monologues in Network) “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

Justin Pemberton’s timely documentary (based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty) tackles those kind of questions. Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. (Full review)

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Desert One – In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back 53 American citizens held hostage in Iran. It did not end well. The failed mission also likely ended Carter’s already waning chances of winning a second term as President.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Carter. An eye-opening documentary. (Full review)

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Love Spreads – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, and Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection) is right in that wheelhouse. “Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs.

The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat). Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, (with a dash of Love and Mercy), bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and some catchy original songs. (Full review)

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Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always – Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s timely drama centers on 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) , a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder). They both work part-time as grocery clerks in rural Pennsylvania (a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided). After a decidedly unhelpful visit to her local “crisis pregnancy center” and a harrowing failed attempt to self-induce an abortion, Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds and hop a bus to New York City.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. She does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate. This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be; it is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.(Full review)

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Pacified – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil make a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection). A cross between The King of New York and City of God, it takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians. (Full review)

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76 Days – Filmed during the early days of the Coronavirus epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, this remarkable documentary was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months (it was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists and their small camera crews). Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach.

I know it seems perverse to include this in my top 10 for a year where movies serve as one of the few respites from the real-life horror of the pandemic; nonetheless, 76 Days must be acknowledged as a timely, humanistic, and essential document. (Full review)

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Tommaso – Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s drama is the latest descendant of Fellini’s ; although it offers a less fanciful and more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is no exception.

He is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife and 3 year-old daughter. At first glance, he leads an idyllic existence. However, it soon becomes evident there is trouble in Paradise. Again, it’s familiar territory, but worth the the price of admission to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material. (Full review).

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

While the trial has been the subject of documentaries and feature films in the past (like the 2008 film The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle, by focusing on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants. While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a “conspirators” by the government. (Full review)

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Weathering With You – Here’s a question somewhat unique to 2020: Do you remember the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I do. It was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film. Little did I suspect that it would come to hold such a special place in my memory…for reasons outside of the film itself. I’ll admit I had some problems with the narrative, which may bring into question why its in my top 10 . That said, I concluded my review thusly:

Still, there’s a lot to like about “Weathering  With You”, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

I have since seen it again, twice (I bought the Blu-ray). Like many of Shinkai’s films, it improves with subsequent viewings. Besides, there’s no law against modifying your initial impression of a movie. That’s my modified opinion, and I’m sticking to it. (Full review)

…and just for giggles

Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing film reviews here at Digby’s (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2020)

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Note: This Sunday marks 57 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

(BTW Criterion has announced a Blu-ray edition for 02/09/21-available to pre-order!)

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian de Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape. The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “de Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2020)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Veteran’s Day was November 11th; but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. Here are my top picks for films dealing with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama pretty much set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par. Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion).

Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza. I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself”.  No film has ever affected me like that, before or since.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and I must say that it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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Slaughterhouse-Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film  by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

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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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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded who carry their war experiences home with them.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (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)

Learn how you can help vets at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site.

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)