Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

The Big Heat: The 10 Sweatiest Film noirs (and Neo-noirs)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2022)

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Hotter than the 4th of July”?

Just as temperatures were heating up for about half of the U.S. population [in late May] the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its monthly climate trends report . The main takeaway? Prepare for a scorcher of a summer.

The agency said that above-normal temperatures are likely across almost all of the lower 48 states in June, July and August, except for small areas in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains.

The Northeast, from Delaware to Maine, has the highest likelihood of being extra-hot, along with parts of the West. The agency also forecast lower-than-normal precipitation for much of the West, which means it’s unlikely that the severe drought gripping the region will end.

[…] The climate pattern called La Niña is likely responsible for some of the above-normal heat. But it’s important to remember that, generally, it’s hotter than it used to be.

Oy.

So…with the mercury already soaring  in many sections of the country I I thought I would curate a Top 10 “hot” noirs binge-watch…should you be so inclined. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous crime thrillers (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and spending a hot weekend ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my apartment…but I can always dream). So here you go (alphabetically)…

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Body Heat – A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming young character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke – “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 drama.  Newman plays a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay is agog with classic lines), Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon steaming up the camera lens as the “car wash girl”.

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Dog Day Afternoon – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Sidney Lumet out-sops the competition. The AC may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale  is at once scary and heartbreaking as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low– Akira Kurosawa’s multi-layered 1963 drama is adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who risks losing controlling shares of his company when he takes responsibility to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by bumbling kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the tableau subtly shifts from the executive’s comfortable, air-conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

While the film is perfectly serviceable as an absorbing police procedural, it delves deeper than a standard genre entry. It is also an examination of class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society.

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The Hot Spot – Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director of same over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

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

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

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The Night of the Hunter – Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice  – A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens.

An iconic noir and blueprint for ensuing entries in the “I love you too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” sub-genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel.

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Touch of Evil– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear / Sorcerer–The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “existential noir” from sits atop that list.

Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.

It does take some time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel.

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If you’ve already seen The Wages of Fear, you might want to check out William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure Sorcerer, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics upon initial release. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars.

At any rate, it’s a well-directed, terrifically acted “update” of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film noir (I refer to it as an “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a letter from the director that was included with the 2014 Blu-ray).

Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack.

Dirty movies: A Top X List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2022)

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(Now that I have your attention) 54 years ago, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).

Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.

By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.

The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.

But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:

As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]

Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]

Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]

Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:

I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]

In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.

Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]

I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.

If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”

The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:

The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]

Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.

 Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:

The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.

Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.

Anyway, in this 54th anniversary year of the MPAA ratings system we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.

It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.

Roger Ebert (yes, the late film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some memorable lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (wisely using a pseudonym).

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A Clockwork Orange –A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultra-violent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.

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The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.

It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase.

Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot. I should note that while contemporary DVD and Blu-ray reissues indicate an ‘R’ rating, the film was originally released as ‘X’ -rated due to male and female frontal nudity.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward (who passed away in May of this year) delivers one of his finest performances portraying gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s 1990 drama is set in 1930s Paris, when Miller was working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros).

Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings. For better or for worse, the film holds the distinction of being the first recipient of the MPAA’s “NC-17” rating.

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

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (male and female frontal nudity).

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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 critics at the time, but 46 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of all 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 produced on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s producer, Big Mac (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.

While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.

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Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers.

Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed. By the way, if you’re a fan of the Netflix series Ozark, keep your eyes peeled for Davison and Thomas, who both give great supporting performances in the latest season (although they don’t have any scenes together).

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Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).

Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers.

Whether the ensuing psychodrama makes a bold statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious blather is up to you. Now that I’m older (and presumably wiser) I’ve come to appreciate Brando’s performance more that I did back in the day; there is a raw, unfiltered honesty and vulnerability I never saw in his other roles.

Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.

The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).

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Midnight Cowboy – Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

Soldier’s things: a Memorial Day mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posts with related themes:

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

All This and WW III: A Mixtape

The Kill Team

The Messenger

Tangerines

The Monuments Men

Inglourious Basterds

Five Graves to Cairo

King of Hearts

The Wind Rises & Generation War

City of Life and Death

Le Grande Illusion

Paths of Glory

Apocalypse Now

 

 

Long strange trip: 10 Offbeat Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2022)

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

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

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

With Memorial Day weekend looming and a creeping sentiment among many (but not all) Americans that the pandemic is, erm …”behind us”, it looks like highways and sky ways are going to be absolutely packed to the gills this travel season. Via the AAA Newsroom:

The unofficial start to summer will be a busy one this year as AAA predicts 39.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend. This is an increase of 8.3% over 2021, bringing travel volumes almost in line with those in 2017. Air travel continues to rebound, up 25% over last year, the second-largest increase since 2010. With volumes closing in on pre-pandemic levels, AAA urges travelers to book now and remember flexibility is key this Memorial Day weekend.

“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months.

Air travel volume, which began to rally last Thanksgiving, will hit levels just shy of 2019 with 3 million people expected to take to the skies this Memorial Day weekend. In fact, the percentage of people traveling by air will surpass 2019 levels with 7.7% of travelers choosing air travel as their preferred mode (it was 7.5% in 2019).

“Air travel has faced several challenges since the beginning of the year,” continued Twidale. “With the type of volume we anticipate, we continue to recommend the safety net of a travel agent and travel insurance. Both are a lifesaver if something unexpectedly derails your travel plans.

Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the busiest in two years, building on an upward trend that began earlier this spring. This year’s forecast marks the second-highest single-year increase in travelers since 2010 (2021 was the highest), bringing volumes almost in line with pre-pandemic levels. Despite historic gas prices, breaching the $4 mark in early March, 34.9 million people plan to travel by car, up 4.6% over last year. A greater portion of travelers are opting for air and other modes of travel than in previous years. Share of car travel fell from 92.1% last year to 88.9% this year, a slight indication that higher prices at the pump are having an impact on how people choose to travel this Memorial Day. Regardless of which mode they choose, travelers should prepare for a busy holiday weekend.

That’s nice, but about those full flights…how are things going with air travel, now that that masking on planes is no longer mandated? Via Jonathan Wolfe in the New York Times:

[Quoting travel columnist Seth Kugel] I still recommend an N95 mask for travel. But you should also keep in mind that things are changing. I just took a flight from St. Louis to New York, and the pilot said something like, “Federal regulations no longer require you to use a mask. Please respect your fellow travelers’ choices.”

Everyone who has been pro-mask has been snidely commenting on the people who don’t wear masks for a long time, and vice versa. This pilot was saying: That’s over now.

There are fewer and fewer people who are masked on flights, and that’s just going to be the price of travel. People around you are going to be eating. They may be coughing, and you just can’t get mad at them. It’s no longer fair to do that, and it could ruin your own trip. Don’t travel if you are going to go crazy when other people don’t wear masks.

Everyone has to respect other people’s decisions for now. That’s good practice for travel anyway. When you travel, you can’t be as judgmental.

I reserve the right to be judgemental (“snidely commenting” is one of life’s greatest pleasures) …so speaking for myself, Mr. Frodo-if I take one more step beyond the grocery store, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been since early 2020. Being cautiously optimistic, I’ll stick with a “stay-cation” for Memorial Day weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2022)

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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.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2022)

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

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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 mesmerizing.

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Last Night – A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story 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, as McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor manner (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!). Nice ensemble work by Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright. McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg a small role. The powerful denouement really packs a wallop.

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The Lathe of Heaven – Adapted by Diane English from 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 is set in “near future” Portland, when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient). Bruce Davison plays George Orr, a chronic insomniac who is convinced his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is assigned to Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway) for psychiatric counseling (Haber specializes in experimental dream research).

When Haber realizes to his amazement that George does in fact have the ability to change reality with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest 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 Haber attempts to make his own Utopian visions a reality, George subverts the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly works 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 be put off by the low-tech special effects; keep in mind that this was made for public TV in 1979, on a shoestring budget.

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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 absorbing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the otherworldly 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.

Showtime premiered a series just last week based on Tevis’ novel. The show runners take a different tack than Roeg, by injecting more dark humor. It appears to be a sequel, not a rehash (at least judging from episode 1). Smart writing and a great cast (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris and Bill Nighy) bodes well; time will tell.

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The Quiet Earth -Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers an unforgettable 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’re entering the Andrei Tarkovsky zone. 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.

Blowin’ Free: 10 essential albums of 1972

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2022)

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As evidenced by the rhetorical posed on Circus magazine’s January 1972 cover, “rock” had become a many-splintered thing by the early 70s…but in a good way. The cross-pollination promoted healthy creative growth; and I firmly believe music fans were more open-minded than they are today (I don’t need to tell you that tribalism permeates every aspect of our lives now…from pop culture to politics).

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.

Since we all love “50th anniversaries” (heh)…I thought I would flip through my CD collection and (at the risk of life and limb) embark on my annual fool’s errand to compile a “top 10” list for (in this case) 1972…a damn fine year for music. As per usual, I present my choices in alphabetical order (not order of preference), and in a feeble attempt to curb the flood of hate mail I’m surely about to receive, I append “the next 10” at the bottom.

And remember, kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.

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#1 Record – Big Star

Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was one of many hurdles they were to face during their brief, ill-fated career. Now considered a seminal “power pop” band, they were 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.

Arguably, they may have jinxed themselves by entitling their 1972 debut #1 Record, but the album contains a bevy of strong tracks that have handily stood the test of time. You would think Bell’s chiming Beatles-influenced melodies and Chilton’s more hard-edged blues/R&B sensibilities would clash, but they make beautiful music together (at times recalling Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton’s dynamic on the early Humble Pie albums).

Choice cuts: “Feel”, “Thirteen”, “The India Song”, “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “Give Me Another Chance”, “Watch the Sunrise”.

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Argus – Wishbone Ash

About 10 years ago, I caught Wishbone Ash at a cozy venue in Tacoma with a longtime pal. When they finished their first set, they announced that after the break, the band would perform their 1972 album Argus in its entirety. We nearly fell out of our chairs. It was a 1973 conversation regarding a mutual appreciation for Argus (and Yessongs) that forged our friendship way back in high school, and eventually inspired us to form a band in 1976 (so forgive me if the opening chords to “Blowin’ Free” make me a bit misty-eyed).

Argus was the 3rd album for the band, which formed in 1969. In this outing, vocalist/guitarist Andy Powell (to this day the longest-standing member), vocalist/guitarist Ted Turner, vocalist/bassist Martin Turner (no relation to Ted) and drummer Steve Upton perfected their blend of blues, folk, and melodic hard rock; fueled by lovely three-part harmonies and Powell and Turner’s distinctive dual-guitar sound. Several long tracks with hard/soft tonal shifts give Argus a more epic and “progressive” feel than the rest of their (substantial) catalog, and it remains their most enduring album.

Choice cuts: “Time Was”, “Blowin’ Free”, “Throw Down the Sword”, “Sometime World”, “Warrior”.

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Can’t Buy a Thrill – Steely Dan

This first excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe may not be as musically adventurous as the Dan’s subsequent albums, but it still had an air of sophistication that separated it from the pack. Can’t Buy a Thrill finds the band at their most radio-friendly (“Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” have become staples of classic rock and oldies formats).

The album contains the only two songs in their catalog (“Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn”) that don’t feature Donald Fagen on lead vocal (David Palmer does the dirty work). I like the fact that this album feels a little rough around the edges; more “analog” relative to the clinical perfection of later projects (likely leading to the “yacht rock” label the band has become undeservedly saddled with).

Choice cuts: “Do It Again”, “Midnite Cruiser”, “Only a Fool Would Say That”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”.

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Last Autumn’s Dream – Jade Warrior

The core members of this hard-to-categorize band (vocalist Jon Field and guitarist Tony Duhig) had been experimenting and developing their idiosyncratic “sound” for the better part of the 1960s before eventually coalescing (with the addition of bassist Glyn Havard and drummer Allan Price) as Jade Warrior in 1970.

The result was a “hard/soft” mélange of multi-textured progressive jazz-folk-ambience (with a tinge of Eastern influence) and occasional bursts of fiery, Hendrix-like riffs from Duhig (sadly, he passed away in 1990). While the band continued to release albums through 2008, Last Autumn’s Dream (their 3rd LP) remains their crowning achievement. Put on some headphones and be transported.

Choice cuts: “A Winter’s Tale”, “May Queen”, “Lady of the Lake”, “Joanne”, “Morning Hymn”.

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Machine Head – Deep Purple

This seminal hard rock outfit formed in the late 60s…and they are still around! There have been many personnel changes over the decades (chiefly involving lead vocalists and lead guitarists), but the power of their music has never faltered. That said, Machine Head is widely considered the most defining album by the “classic” lineup-featuring one of rock’s great screamers, Ian Gillian on vocals, maestro of the whammy bar Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass), and Jon Lord (keyboards).

As the song goes, they “all went down to Montreux” to record this album in a rented casino space but had an unexpected change of venue after the casino burned down during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers (some songs just write themselves, don’t they?). At any rate, they found a space, laid down some tracks …and the rest is history.

Choice cuts: “Highway Star”, “Smoke on the Water”, “Lazy”, “Space Truckin”.

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Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie

David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “trendsetter”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Favorite Bowie album? For me that’s like choosing a favorite child. If pressed, I’d say my favorite Bowie period is the Mick Ronson years (Space Oddity, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Alladin Sane, and Pinups). There was indefinable “something” about the Bowie and Ronno dynamic, which reached its apex with this groundbreaking 1972 album. Bowie and the Spiders (Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey) are in top form; nary a weak cut, from start to finish. Bowie co-produced with Ken Scott.

Choice cuts: “Five Years”, “Moonage Daydream”, “Starman”, “Hang on to Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Suffragette City”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”.

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Roxy Music – Roxy Music

We are from your future! This English outfit (founded in 1970) had strange optics for its time. They looked like a hastily assembled jam band of space rockers, 50s greasers, hippie stoners, and goths, fronted by a stylishly continental 30s crooner. But the music they made together was magic. It also defied categorization and begged a question; do we file it under glam, prog, electronica, experimental, pop or art-rock? The answer is “yes”. They were a huge influence on art punk and new wave, and even their earliest music still sounds fresh-as demonstrated when you give their eponymous debut album a listen.

Choice cuts: “Re-Make/Re-Model”. “Ladytron”, “2HB”, “The Bob (Medley)”.

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Something/Anything – Todd Rundgren

It’s shocking to me that it took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2021 to induct musical polymath Todd Rundgren, a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who has been in the business for over 50 years (he is also a music video/multimedia pioneer). Granted, he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf, whether it’s his own projects, or producing for other artists (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, et.al.).

Rundgren pulled out all the stops for his third album (a double-LP set), which I consider his masterpiece. Running the gamut from beautiful ballads and radio-friendly singles to blues, R&B, hard rock, power pop, and experimental whimsy, this is a very distinctive (if disparate) set of material. What makes the album even more impressive is the fact that Sides 1, 2, and 3 are “all Todd” …all vocals, instruments, and the production. Side 4 (billed as “A Pop Operetta”) are essentially live take sessions with additional musicians.

Choice cuts: “I Saw the Light”, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, “Cold Morning Light”, “The Night the Carousel Burned Down”, “Torch Song”, “Black Maria”, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, “Hello, It’s Me”.

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Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

This superb and soulful soundtrack for Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation film was Curtis Mayfield’s third outing as a solo artist (he had previously been a key member of The Impressions from 1958-1970). Chockablock with funky riffs, in-the-pocket arrangements, and bold, socially conscious lyrics, it’s little surprise that the album yielded two huge hits (“Superfly” and “Freddie’s Dead”) and made Mayfield a “go-to” guy for soundtracks (Claudine, A Piece of the Action, Let’s Do It Again, Sparkle, et.al.).

Choice cuts: “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”, “Pusherman”, “Freddie’s Dead”, “No Thing On Me”, “Superfly”.

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Talking Book – Stevie Wonder

It almost defies belief that Stevie Wonder was only 21 years old when he released this classic set…and it was his 15th album. If the nearly-as-good Music of My Mind (released earlier the same year) was Wonder’s Rubber Soul, Talking Book was his Revolver. Expanding on the mature, sophisticated aesthetic of his previous LP (and possibly feeling artistically empowered by the success of Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking 1971 concept album What’s Goin’ On) Wonder continued to evolve beyond the established Motown pop formula.

That said, Wonder’s songwriting genius still yielded several chart-friendly hits (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition” both hit number one). Wonder’s keyboard work reached new heights, especially his use of the clavinet on the hook-laden “Superstition”, and he brought in some heavy hitters, including Ray Parker, Jr., David Sanborn, and Jeff Beck (Beck’s sublime solo on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” prompts an audible and heartfelt “Play it, Jeff!” from Wonder). Magificent.

Choice cuts: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, “Tuesday Heartbreak”, “Superstition”, “Blame it on the Sun”, “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever”).

Bonus Tracks!

 

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Here are 10 more gems from 1972 worth a spin:

All the Young Dudes – Mott the Hoople
Barnstorm – Joe Walsh
Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones
Harvest – Neil Young
Headkeeper – Dave Mason
Pink Moon – Nick Drake
Slade Alive! – Slade
Transformer – Lou Reed
Wind of Change – Peter Frampton
The World is a Ghetto – War

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2022)

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I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a (to quote Orson Welles) “ribbon of dreams” to begin with. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters and/or the movie audience are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Alphabetically…

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Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick’s beautifully photographed, leisurely paced adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a roguish Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who grifts his way into the English aristocracy is akin to watching 18th-century paintings sumptuously spring to life (funnily enough, its detractors tend to liken it to “oil paintings” as well, but for entirely different reasons). The cast includes Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leonard Rossiter and Leon Vitali.

This magnificent 1975 film has improved with age, like a fine wine; successive viewings prove the stories about Kubrick’s obsession with the minutest of details were not exaggerated-every frame is steeped in verisimilitude. Michael Hordern’s delightfully droll voice over work as The Narrator rescues the proceedings from sliding into staidness. The most elegant “long con” in cinema…from both a narrative and visual standpoint.

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Carny–This oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) is set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival. Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey star as longtime pals and carnies who take a teenage runaway (Jodie Foster) under their wing and give her a crash course in the art of the con (i.e. hustling customers out of their hard-earned cash).

The story is elevated above its inherent sleaze factor by the excellent performances. Busey’s work here is a reminder that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

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Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve ball.

Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full Review)

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The Master– As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

I find it a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or be conned by an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure-Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver two fearless lead performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull. (Full Review)

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Nightmare Alley – “How can a guy get so low?” Even within the dark recesses of film noir, this cynical 1947 entry is about as “low” as you can get. Directed by Edmund Goulding and adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, the film was a career gamble for star Tyrone Power, who really sinks his teeth into the role of carny-barker-turned “mentalist” Stanton Carlisle.

Utilizing his innate charm and good looks, the ambitious Carlise ingratiates himself with a veteran carnival mind-reader (Joan Blondell). Once he finagles a few tricks of the trade from her, he woos a hot young sideshow performer (Coleen Gray) and talks her into partnering up to develop their own mentalist act.

The newlyweds find success on the nightclub circuit, but the ever-scheming Carlisle soon sees an opportunity to play a long con with a potentially big payoff. To pull this off, he seeks the assistance of a local shrink (Helen Walker). While not immune to Carlisle’s charms, she is not going to be an easy pushover like the other women in his life. Big trouble ahead…and a race back to the bottom. Full of surprising twists and turns.

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

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

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Screenwriter Alvin Sargent adapted from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”. (Bogdanovich passed away in January 2022; I wrote a tribute piece.)

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The Servant – Joseph Losey’s brooding and decadent class-struggle allegory features the great Dirk Bogarde in a note-perfect performance as the “manservant” hired by a snobby playboy (James Fox) to help him settle into his upscale London digs. It soon becomes apparent that this butler has a little more on the agenda than just polishing silverware and dusting the mantle. Sara Miles is also memorable in one of her earliest film roles.

Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s striking chiaroscuro composition and clever use of convex mirrors (which appear to “trap” the images of the principal characters) sustains a stifling, claustrophobic mood throughout. If you’re an aficionado of the 60’s British folk scene, keep your eyes peeled for a rare (and unbilled) screen appearance by guitarist Davey Graham, featured in a scene where Fox walks into a coffeehouse. Harold Pinter’s screenplay was adapted from the novel by Robin Maugham.

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Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (don’t let your attention wane!).

Reviews were mixed when the film came out, but I think it’s high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rossellini. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

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The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

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The Usual Suspects –What separates Bryan Singer’s tightly-directed sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s is a great cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending.

The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 Movies about the Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2022)

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I felt it apropos on this Oscar Eve to honor Hollywood’s annual declaration of its deep and abiding love for itself with my picks for the top 10 movies about…the movies. Action!

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Cinema Paradiso Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to the cinema may be too sappy for some, but for those of us who (to quote Pauline Kael) “lost it at the movies” it’s chicken soup for the soul. A film director (Jacques Perrin) returns to his home town in Sicily for a funeral, triggering flashbacks from his youth. He reassesses the relationships with two key people in his life: his first love, and the person who instilled his life-long love of the movies. Beautifully acted and directed; keep the Kleenex handy.

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Day for Night– French film scholar and director Francois Truffaut was, first and foremost, a movie fan. And while one could argue that many of his own movies are rife with homage to the filmmakers who inspired him, this 1973 entry is his most heartfelt declaration of love for the medium (as well as his most-imitated work). Truffaut casts himself as (wait for it) a director in the midst of a production called Meet Pamela.

“Pamela” is a beautiful but unstable British actress (Jacqueline Bisset) who is gingerly stepping back into the spotlight after a highly publicized breakdown. The petulant, emotionally immature leading man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a fool for love, which constantly distracts him from his work. Truffaut also has to coddle an aging Italian movie queen (Valentia Cortese) who is showing up on set three sheets to the wind and flubbing scenes.

Truffaut cleverly mirrors the backstage travails of his cast and crew with those of the characters in the “film-within-the-film”. Somehow, it all manages to fall together…but getting there is half the fun. Truffaut parlays a sense of what a director “does” (in case you were wondering) and how a good one can coax magic from seemingly inextricable chaos.

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Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 30 years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality (while I wish his legion of loyal fans all the best, Burton’s predilection for overly-precious phantasmagorical and macabre fare is an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire).

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spiritedness here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau delivers a droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine.

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8 1/2– Where does creative inspiration come from? It’s a simple question, but one of the most difficult to answer. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 classic probably comes closest to “showing” us…in his inimitable fashion. Marcello Mastroianni is fabulous as a successful director who wrestles with a creative block whilst being hounded by the press and various hangers-on. Like many Fellini films (all Fellini films?), the deeper you go, the less you comprehend. Yet (almost perversely), you can’t take your eyes off the screen; with Fellini, there is an implied contract between the director and the viewer that, no matter what ensues, if you’ve bought the ticket, you have to take the ride.

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Hearts of the West– In Howard Zeiff’s 1975 dramedy, Jeff Bridges stars as a Depression-era wannabe pulp western writer (a scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) He gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out West”. Serendipity lands him a job as a Hollywood stuntman. Bridges gets able support from Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith (one of his best performances), Donald Pleasence, Richard B. Shull, and veteran scene-stealer Alan Arkin (he’s a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director). Rob Thompson’s witty script gives the wonderful cast plenty to chew on.

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The Kid Stays in the Picture– Look up “raconteur” in the dictionary and you might see a picture of the subject of this winning 2002 documentary, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen. While essentially a 90-minute monologue by legendary producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, etc.) recounting his life and career, it’s an intimate and fascinating “insider” purview of the Hollywood machine. Evans spins quite the tale of a mogul’s rise and fall; by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. He’s so charming and entertaining that you won’t stop to ponder whether he’s making half this shit up. Inventive, engaging, and required viewing for movie buffs.

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Living in Oblivion– This under-appreciated 1995 sleeper from writer-director Tom DiCillo is the Day for Night of indie cinema. A NYC-based filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) is directing a no-budget feature. Much to his chagrin, the harried director seems to be stuck in a hellish loop as he chases an ever-elusive “perfect take” for a couple of crucial scenes.

DiCillo’s cleverly constructed screenplay is quite funny. Fabulous performances abound from a “Who’s Who” of indie film: Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage (in his first billed film role). Dinklage delivers a hilarious rant about the stereotypical casting of dwarves in dream sequences. It has been rumored that Le Gros’ character (an arrogant Hollywood hotshot who has deigned to grace the production with his presence) was based on the director’s experience working with Brad Pitt (who starred in DeCillo’s 1991 debut , Johnny Suede). If true, all I can say is…ouch!

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The Story of Film: An Odyssey is one long-ass movie. Consider the title. It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. At 15 hours, it is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it must have been for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. Originally aired as a TV series in the UK, it played on the festival circuit as a five-part presentation. While the usual suspects are well-represented, Cousins’ choices for in-depth analysis are atypical (e.g. African and Middle-Eastern cinema).

That quirkiness is what I found most appealing about this idiosyncratic opus; world cinema (rightfully) gets equal time with Hollywood. The film is not without tics. Cousins’ oddly cadenced Irish brogue takes acclimation, and he tends to over-use the word “masterpiece”. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is obviously a labor of love by someone who is sincerely passionate about film.

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The Stunt Man– “How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?”

That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is in the midst of filming an art-house flavored WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least.

O’Toole chews major scenery, ably supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield. Despite the lukewarm reviews from critics upon original release, it has since gained status as a cult classic. This is a movie for people who love the movies.

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

All this and WWIII: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 19, 2022)

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It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle
While war is polishing his drum and peace plays second fiddle
Russia and America are at each other’s throats
But don’t you cry
Just get on your knees and pray, and while you’re
Down there, kiss your arse goodbye

-from “Living Though Another Cuba”, by XTC

What with the reheated Cold War rhetoric in the air (commensurate with the escalation of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine), it is beginning to feel a lot like 1983. That was the year President Reagan made his “Evil Empire” speech, in which he planted the idea of deploying NATO nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets having done the same in Eastern Europe.

For those of us of a certain age, what was going in in 1983 with the Soviets and the looming nuclear threat and the saber-rattling and such hearkened back to 1962, which was the year President Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we came “this” close to an earth-shattering kaboom (OK-I was 6, but I do remember watching it on TV).

Meanwhile, in 2022…I’m sensing Cold War III.

This past Thursday on Democracy Now, co-hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh interviewed Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who pointed out far-reaching consequences of the war in Ukraine that are already playing out:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, could you respond specifically — to go back to the question of the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine — the provision, in particular, of these 100 so-called killer drones, Switchblade drones? This is the first time since the Russian invasion that the U.S. will be providing drones, though Ukraine has been using, apparently to great effect, Turkish — armed drones provided by Turkey. Could you speak specifically about these drones that the U.S. is going to supply?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, this is a serious escalation of what the U.S. is sending. As you say, Nermeen, the Turkish drones have been in use by the Ukrainians for some time now. But these drones are significantly more powerful, and the expectation is that they would be used against groupings of Russian soldiers on the ground. And they could result in the deaths of large numbers of soldiers if they were used effectively.

The question of drone extension, where drones are being used, is a very serious global question as we look at the militarization that is increasing in the context of this war. Countries across Europe are talking about remilitarizing. Germany, in particular, is saying they are going to spend a lot more money on their military, that they’re going to start spending 2% of their GDP on military forces, something that has been a goal of NATO, that has so far has only been reached by about 10 European countries, not including Germany, which is of course the wealthiest country in Europe. So, this is a very serious level of escalation. Whether it will have a qualitative shift in the battlefield situation in terms of the balance of forces, I don’t think we know yet, but it does represent a serious U.S. commitment. […]

So, it’s very, very important that the pressure remain on the Biden administration to maintain the opposition to a no-fly zone. It’s going to be increasingly difficult, I think, because in Congress there is — there’s certainly not a majority, thankfully, but there are increasing members of Congress that are calling for a no-fly zone. Some of that is presumably political posturing. But if that rises and if there’s a public call because there’s this sense of, “Well, let’s just do that, let’s just have a no-fly zone,” as if it was this magical shield, I think that it will become increasingly difficult for the Biden administration. So that becomes increasingly important.

It’s taking place, this debate is taking place, in the context of what I mentioned earlier, the increasing militarization that is one of the consequences of this war. We’re seeing that certainly across Europe, but we’re also seeing it in the United States — the new $800 billion [sic], parts of the $14.5 billion — sorry, the $800 million for the new package, the $14.5 billion package that has already been underway for Ukraine. The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war. They’re the ones that are making a killing. And that will continue. That will continue with a newly militarized Europe in the aftermath of this war. So the consequences are going to be very, very severe.

“The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war.”  Bingo. When I heard that, a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” instantly popped into my head:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

Plus ca change. I’ve had lots of songs popping into my head lately…here’s a few more:

“New Frontier” – Donald Fagen

“The Russians Are Coming” – Captain Sensible

“April Sun in Cuba” – Dragon

“Living Through Another Cuba” – XTC

“And So It Goes” – Nick Lowe

“Land of Confusion” – Genesis

“99 Luftballons” – Nena

“Red Skies” – The Fixx

“Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Leningrad” – Billy Joel

“Russians” – Sting

“Breathing” – Kate Bush

Outside gets inside
Ooh-ooh, through her skin
I’ve been out before
But this time it’s much safer in

Last night in the sky
Ooh-ooh, such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in…

We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last, ooh
After the blast, chips of plutonium
Are twinkling in every lung

I love my beloved, ooh
All and everywhere
Only the fools blew it
You and me knew life itself is

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out
Out, out, out, out

[TV announcer] “Difference between a small nuclear explosion
And a large one by a very simple method
The calling card of a nuclear bomb is the blinding flash
That is far more dazzling than any light on earth
Brighter even than the sun itself
And it is by the duration of this flash
That we are able to determine the size of the weapon (what are we going to do without?)

After the flash a fireball can be seen to rise
Sucking up under it the debris, dust and living things
Around the area of the explosion
And as this ascends, it soon becomes recognizable
As the familiar mushroom cloud

As a demonstration of the flash duration test
Let’s try and count the number of seconds for the flash
Emitted by a very small bomb then a more substantial, medium sized bomb
And finally, one of our very powerful high yield bombs.”

What are we going to do without? (Ooh, please)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, let me breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Ooh, quick, breathe in deep)
We are all going to die without (oh, leave me something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, leave me something to breathe)
We are all going to die without (oh God, please leave us something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, life is)

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