Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2020)

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I’m not really a sports guy-but from I understand, this past Thursday would have been Opening Day for America’s favorite pastime:

(from The Washington Post)

By midmorning Thursday, a few hours before first pitch, they would be firing up the fryers and grills and popcorn poppers, filling the air with the unmistakable smell of ballpark food. The marquee out front would have the words we have been waiting all winter to read: “OPENING DAY — TODAY.” You would walk through the tunnel into the bowl of the stadium to be greeted by the sunshine and the expanse of green and the red, white and blue bunting draped over the upper-deck railings.

Fifteen North American cities were set to hold Opening Day on Thursday, with the first games at 1:10 p.m. Eastern time. […] Instead, those 15 stadiums — and the 15 of the visiting teams whose home openers would come later — will be dark Thursday and for many weeks to come. The novel coronavirus pandemic brought the baseball season to a stop before it could even start, and if there is to be an Opening Day at all in 2020, no one can say for certain when it will be.

“It’s going to be weird knowing that we’re not playing,” said Baltimore Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde, whose team was supposed to host the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Thursday afternoon. “But there are a lot bigger things than Opening Day right now and a lot bigger things going on in the world.”

Yes, things are definitely a little…weird right now. One of the most FAQs floating around on social media (aside from “How long am I being restricted to quarters?!”) is “So what should I watch?” The good news is…with all the entertainment platforms available in 2020, there’s a glut of “stuff” to watch.

That doesn’t guarantee that it’s all watchable; I understand the need to separate the wheat from the chaff. You don’t want to invest unrecoverable hours of your life watching what turns out to be a lemon (unless, say, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys are there to turn it into lemonade). So for the time being, I’ll be combing my archives every Saturday night to bring you the erm…wheat.

With that in mind-while you might not be able to “walk through the tunnel into the bowl of the stadium to be greeted by the sunshine and the expanse of green and the red, white and blue bunting draped over the upper-deck railings”, you can enjoy a reasonable facsimile thereof on your home screen by giving one of these sports-related gems a spin.

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

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

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

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

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

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski).

Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Granted, it’s a bit of a downer, but still worth your time. Beautifully acted and masterfully directed, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra innings!

We could be benched for a while. Here are 10 more personal recommendations:

Any Given Sunday

Bang the Drum Slowly

Cool Runnings

Field of Dreams

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Natural

Raging Bull

Rocky

When We Were Kings

Cinema Therapy: 10 films that never let me down

By Dennis Hartley

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

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and I’m getting emails like this:

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I’d reach for the Ben and Jerry’s…but my local grocery stores seem to be out of stock.

There’s been movement to offer first-run features online; Kino-Lorber will be launching “Kino Marquee” (which they refer to as “virtual screenings” as opposed to standard VOD) and Xfinity cable is now pushing a VOD feature called “Xfinity Movie Premiere”. I’d hazard a guess that other releasing studios and platforms will follow suit very shortly.

With more of us living la vida shut-in (as mandated by authorities and/or common sense), the need for “cinema therapy” is paramount (no pun intended). With that in mind, here are 10 personal faves that I’ve watched an unhealthy number of times; films I’m most likely to reach for when I’m depressed, feeling anxious, uncertain about the future…or all the above. These films, like my oldest and dearest friends, have never, ever let me down.

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Black Orpheus – Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsating rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes.

Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweet, innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things are bound to get ugly, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about.

A unique film that fully engages the senses. Some may wonder how I’m “comforted” by a story based on a classic Greek tragedy; but it’s the final scene (one of the most beautiful, life-affirming denouements in cinema history) that always assures me that somehow, everything is going to be alright.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers.

Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Local Hero – This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth stars Peter Reigert as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with local property owners and essentially buy out the town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

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The Maltese Falcon – This iconic noir, based on a classic Dashiell Hammett novel and marking the directing debut for a Mr. John Huston, is so vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist, that I don’t feel the need to recount the plot. Suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that.

Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Equally memorable performances from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre (“Look what you did to my shirt!”), Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook, Jr. round things off quite nicely. I’ve lost count on my viewings of this one.

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Man on the Train – There are a only a handful of films I have seen that I have become  emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them.

Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in the twilight of their life with completely disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpectedly deep bond turns into an equally unexpectedly transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and the wonderful screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver revelatory performances. I feel an urge to go watch it right now.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time.The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is also worth a peek.

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Spirited Away – Innovative Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki has made a lot of great films, but this may well be his crowning achievement. A young girl and her parents inadvertently stumble into a resort spa reserved exclusively for traditional Japanese deities and other assorted denizens of the spirit world. Needless to say, this “security breach” throws the phantasmagorical residents into quite a tizzy; Mom and Dad are turned into barnyard animals and their daughter has to rely on her wits and previously untapped inner strength to save them. Visually stunning and imaginative nearly beyond description, it also tells a beautiful story-funny, touching, exciting and empowering.

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The Thin Man – A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old for me. The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 86 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

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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 social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment.

Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t explain.

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Wings of Desire – I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time, period full stop (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi (definite contenders) it is akin to the unenviable task of describing color to a blind person.

I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel (Bruno Ganz) who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…well, you’d probably say “Dennis, that sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I also told you it features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d laugh and say “I’m being punk’d, right?” Of course, there is much more to it. It’s about life, the universe, and everything.

BONUS!

If you really want to go all out for movie night (which is pretty much every night for me), you have to watch a cartoon before the movie, right? Here’s my 2011 review of a Blu-ray box set always guaranteed to lift your spirits. Keep it handy, right next to the first aid kit.

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The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 – During those long, dark nights of my soul, when all seems hopeless and futile, there’s always one particular thought that never fails to bring me back to the light. It’s that feeling that somewhere, out there in the ether, there’s a frog, with a top hat and a cane, waiting for a chance to pop out of a box to sing:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal                                     Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart’s on fire…

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and skip to the next review now.

The rest of you might want to check out this fabulous 3-disc collection, which features 50 classic animated shorts (and 18 rarities) from the Warner Brothers vaults. Deep catalog Looney Tunes geeks may quibble until the cows come home about what’s not here (Warner has previously released six similar DVD collections in standard definition), but for the casual fans (like yours truly) there is plenty to please. I’m just happy to have “One Froggy Evening”, “I Love to Singa”, “Rabbit of Seville”, “Duck Amuck”, “Leghorn Lovelorn”, “Three Little Bops” and “What’s Opera Doc?” in one place. The selections cover all eras, from the 1940s onward.

One thing that does become clear, as you watch these restored gems in gorgeous hi-def (especially those from the pre-television era) is that these are not “cartoons”, they are 7 ½ minute films, every bit as artful as anything else cinema has to offer. Extras include a trio of excellent documentaries about the studio’s star director, the legendary Chuck Jones. The real diamond among the rarities is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (directed by Jones for MGM), which won the 1965 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Rave on, rave on..St. Patrick’s Awesome Mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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So this St. Patrick’s day is going to be a little weird, right? On this commemoration of the day that Saint Patrick drove the snakes into the sea, the snakes have *possibly* returned (in a roundabout way) to bite us all on the ass. Bars and restaurants are closed, public health authorities are (wisely) advising “social distancing” to help thwart spread of the Covid-19 virus (so parades are right out), the kids are home from school…and you’re considering taking up day drinking. Be strong. Don’t go there yet. Wait until dusk.

Meantime, take a breather. Turn off the news for 30 minutes, kick back, brew a nice cup of chamomile tea (OK…with just a splash of Dead Rabbit, as long as the kids aren’t looking) put in the earbuds and enjoy some fine music imported from the Emerald Isle.

Over the hills and far away: 10 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

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

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As this Tuesday is Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 10 grand film recommendations. Since public celebrations have been cancelled and health officials are advising to remain housebound for a spell, I’ve also noted any cable and/or digital platform availability where applicable (based on my Xfinity package; depending on your cable service, erm-“results may vary”).

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

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

Available for rental from iNDemand

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!).

Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”).

Available for rental from Disney Studios

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A Date for Mad Mary – Seana Kerslake makes a remarkable debut in Darren Thornton’s 2017 dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20-year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Assuming that her volatile friend won’t find a date, Charlene refuses her a “plus one”. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists she will; leading to an unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Available for purchase only from Xfinity on demand (no rental option)

Hear My Song – This charming, quirky comedy-drama from writer-director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones) concerns an Irish club-owner in England (Adrian Dunbar) who’s having a streak of bad luck. He’s not only on the outs with his lovely fiancée (Tara Fitzgerald), but is forced to shut down his venue after a series of dud bookings (like “Franc Cinatra”) puts him seriously in the red. Determined to win back his ladylove and get his club back in the black, he stows away on a freighter headed for his native Dublin. He enlists an old pal to help him hunt down and book a legendary tenor (Ned Beatty, in one of his best roles) who has hasn’t performed in decades (he’s hiding from the tax man). Fabulous script, direction, and acting. Funny, touching and guaranteed to lift your spirits.

Available for rental from Miramax

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Into the West – A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one pretty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

Available for rental from Miramax

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My Left Foot – This was the first (and best) of three collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This intensely moving 1989 biopic concerns Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical roadblocks.

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity. Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. It’s easy to overlook 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as the young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

Available from HBO on demand (free to subscribers)

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Odd Man Out – An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the dark and shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is most definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up remarkably well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with strong political undercurrents. The great cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

Available from On Demand and ScreenPix

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The Quiet Man – A John Ford classic. I’ll admit to never having been a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s perfect in this role as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from the gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although quite tame by today’s standards, I’ve always found the romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara to be surprisingly erotic for the time. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier onscreen, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

Available for rental from Paramount

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The Secret of Roan Inish – John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have received a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal. Ork, ork!

Available for purchase only from Sony (no rental option)

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Song of the Sea – This 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. After his daughter is nearly swept away when she sleep walks into the nearby surf one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

Moore’s film has a timeless quality and a visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is an overall sense of “warmth” in Moore’s skilled use of traditional hand-drawn animation; genuine heart that is sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days.

Available from STARZEncore on demand (free to subscribers)

 

This ain’t the Summer of Love: 10 essential rock albums of 1970

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/KFAR-2.jpg?w=438&ssl=1Clearly, I was diggin’ the super sounds of the 70s. (ca. 1978)

I’m livin’ in the 70’s
Eatin’ fake food under plastic trees
My face gets dirty just walkin’ around
I need another pill to calm me down

-from “Living in the 70s” by Skyhooks

If you’ve grown weary of your hippie grandparents getting misty-eyed over “the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on Sullivan”, “the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love” or “the 50th anniversary of Woodstock”, I have good news for you. The 60s are finally over.

The bad news is …welcome to the 1970s!

When it comes to music, the 1970s were pretty, pretty, good. In fact, I have to say that some of the finest music known to humanity was produced during that decade. Now there are some who subscribe to the theory that one’s “musical taste” is formed during high school and thenceforth set in stone. Full disclosure: I graduated from high school in 1974.

I still say some of the finest music known to humanity was produced during that decade.

In the several years following the release of the Beatles’ game-changing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” progressed by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres began to propagate; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. By the time the new decade rolled around, you could add more variations: Latin rock, jazz-rock, funk-rock, and polar extremes that would come to be dubbed as “soft rock” and “heavy metal”.

I’ve lost my curly locks (ditto aviator glasses) and there are a few more lines on my face, but I’d guess around 70% of the music that I still listen to was created in the 1970s. (Oh god here he goes now with the anniversary mention) It’s hard to believe that 1970 was (ahem) 50 years ago …but there you have it. With that in mind, here are my picks for the 10 best rock albums of 1970, a year that offers an embarrassing wealth of damn fine LPs.

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All Things Must Pass – George Harrison

1970 was an interesting year for the four artists formerly known as “The Beatles”. The belated release of the less-than-stellar Let it Be (actually recorded prior to 1969’s Abbey Road) was overshadowed by solo album debuts from all four ex-band mates. While John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Paul McCartney’s McCartney, and Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey certainly contained fine material, I don’t think anybody saw this one coming (always watch out for the “quiet ones”). George Harrison had been “quietly” stowing away some very strong material for some time-at least judging by this massive 3-record set (although one could argue that the 3rd LP, comprised of 4 meandering jam sessions, was excess baggage). Produced by Phil Spector and featuring a stellar list of backing musicians (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, Bobby Keys, Peter Frampton, Gary Brooker, Alan White, Ginger Baker, Dave Mason, et.al.) Harrison delivers an astonishing set of songs, many of which have become classics.

Choice cuts: “I’d Have You Anytime”, “My Sweet Lord”, “Isn’t it a Pity (Version One)”, “Let it Down”, “What is Life”, “Beware of Darkness”, “All Things Must Pass”, “Art of Dying”.

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Bitches Brew – Miles Davis

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

Choice cuts: “Pharoah’s Dance”, “Bitches Brew”, “John McLaughlin”.

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Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tri-tone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!” Talk about a mission statement. Alleged to have been recorded in a single 12-hour session, Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album blew teenage minds, scared the bejesus out of the clergy and ushered in a genre of rock that showed no fear of the dark.

Choice cuts: “Black Sabbath”, “The Wizard”, “N.I.B.”, “Evil Woman”, “Sleeping Village”.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel went out on a high note with their swan song album (figuratively and literally…if you factor in Art Garfunkel’s soaring vocal performance on the title cut). The album not only features one of Paul Simon’s finest and most enduring song cycles, but outstanding production as well by engineer and co-producer Roy Halee. Halee picked up a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording; the album was festooned with an additional 5 Grammys (including Album of the Year and 4 wins for the title track alone). Simon went on to enjoy a highly successful solo career, and while Garfunkel continued to record and perform (including a reunion or two with Simon), his focus shifted to acting.

Choice cuts: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “El Condor Pasa”, “Cecilia”, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”, “The Boxer”, “The Only Living Boy in New York”.

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Emerson, Lake, & Palmer – Emerson, Lake, & Palmer

In my 2016 tribute to Greg Lake, I wrote:

Greg Lake was not only one of the gods of prog-rock, but for my money, owned the greatest set of pipes in any musical genre.

That voice has captivated me from the first time I heard “In the Court of the Crimson King” wafting from my radio back in 1969. Even through a tinny 4″ speaker, that beautiful, cathedral voice shot directly through my medulla oblongata and took my breath away.    

Prog-rock’s first super-group not only had “that voice”, but the keyboard wizardry of Keith Emerson (The Nice) and the precise drumming of Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster). ELP’s eponymous debut showcases the trio’s virtuosic musicianship and seamless blending of folk, rock, jazz and classical influences.

Choice cuts: “The Barbarian”, “Take a Pebble”, “Knife-Edge”, “Lucky Man”.

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Fire and Water – Free

On an episode of his AXS-TV interview series, former AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson described the voice of his guest Paul Rodgers thusly: “Velvet chocolate, with a splash of whiskey if required.” Perfect. Speaking of “perfect”, Free’s third studio album is damn-near. Fire and Water is an apt title for this strong set of elemental R&B-flavored blues-rock; propelled by Simon Kirke’s powerful drumming, Andy Fraser’s fluid bass lines, and Paul Kossoff’s spare yet dynamic guitar playing, topped off by Rodgers’ distinctive vocals (possessing a voice like that by 21 can only be attributed to “a gift from beyond”).

Choice cuts: “Fire and Water”, “Oh I Wept”, “Mr. Big”, “Don’t Say You Love Me”, “All Right Now”.

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Led Zeppelin III – Led Zeppelin

For their third album (my favorite), Led Zeppelin continued to draw from the well of Delta blues, English folk and heavy metal riffing that had informed the “sound” of Led Zeppelin and II the previous year, but indicated they were opening themselves to a bit of new exploration as well. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were taking an interest in Eastern music, most evident in the song “Friends” which features an exotic string arrangement that hints at future forays into world music like “Four Sticks” (on IV) and “Kashmir” (on Physical Graffiti). While not bereft of straight-up rockers, this album is also their most “acoustic”, with folk and country-blues influences sprinkled throughout (Page even throws in some banjo for their arrangement of the traditional folk ballad “Gallows Pole”).

Choice cuts: “Immigrant Song”, “Friends”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “Gallows Pole”, “Tangerine”, “That’s the Way”, “Bron-y-aur Stomp”.

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The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie

You could say that David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible he invented a working time machine, as he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. If pressed, I’d have to say my favorite Bowie “period” would be the Mick Ronson years (1969-1973). When he released his third album in 1970, Bowie was on the precipice of outer space and transitioning to a harder rock sound. Mick Ronson’s crunchy power chords and fiery solos feel like a warmup for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which was just around the corner.

Choice cuts: “Width of a Circle”, “All the Madmen”, “Black Country Rock”, “After All”, “Running Gun Blues”, “The Man Who Sold the World”.

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Rides Again – The James Gang

One of the most majestic and melodic hard rock albums of the 70s, in a realm with Who’s Next. It was the second of three studio albums with Joe Walsh on lead vocals, guitar, and keyboards (Walsh departed the band in 1972, and bass player Dale Peters and drummer Jim Fox would go on to recruit several more guitarists and lead vocalists throughout the decade, including the late great Tommy Bolin). This is one of Walsh’s finest moments; especially in the Abbey Road-style suite on side 2 (Walsh continued a partnership with producer Bill Szymczyk; working with him on 7 of his solo albums between 1972-1992).

Choice cuts: “Funk #49”, “The Bomber: Closet Queen”, “Tend My Garden”, “Garden Gate”, “There I Go Again”,  “Thanks”, “Ashes, the Rain and I”.

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Tea for the Tillerman – Cat Stevens

To paraphrase from one of the tunes on this album, Cat Stevens had “come a long way” from his first charted hit “I Love My Dog” in 1966 to this beautifully crafted song cycle in 1970. After a life-threatening bout with TB in 1969 that left him hospitalized for months, Stevens went through a spiritual and creative transformation that ultimately inspired him to produce an amazing catalog of compositions within a short period of time (his 1971 follow-up Teaser and the Firecat is equally outstanding). Several songs from this album ended up on the soundtrack for Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude.

Choice cuts: “Where Do the Children Play?”, “Wild World”, “Miles From Nowhere”, “On the Road to Find Out”, “Father and Son”, “Tea for the Tillerman”.

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more 1970 releases worth a spin:

  • After the Gold Rush – Neil Young
  • Alone Together – Dave Mason
  • Benefit – Jethro Tull
  • Ladies of the Canyon – Joni Mitchell
  • Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek and the Dominos
  • Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround – The Kinks
  • Moondance – Van Morrison
  • Morrison Hotel – The Doors
  • Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
  • Tumbleweed Connection – Elton John

My funny valentine: 10 Romantic Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 15, 2020)

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I know …Valentine’s Day was yesterday. But at least I remembered. OK, I’m on the couch.

Anyway. I’ve combed through my review archives of the last decade or so and assembled a “top 10 list” of romantic comedies that may not have set the box office on fire, but are definitely worth seeking out. You may even fall in love with a few of these. Alphabetically:

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Blind Date – Is there a level of humor below “deadpan”? If so, I’d say that this film from Georgian director Levan Koguashvili has it in spades. A minimalist meditation on the state of modern love in Tbilisi (in case you’d been wondering), the story focuses on the romantic travails of a sad sack Everyman named Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze), a 40-ish schoolteacher who still lives with his parents. Sandro and his best bud (Archil Kikodze) spend their spare time arranging double dates via singles websites, with underwhelming results. Then it happens…Sandro meets his dream woman (Ia Sukhitashvili). There’s a mutual attraction, but one catch. Her husband’s getting out of jail…very soon. This is one of those films that sneaks up on you; archly funny, and surprisingly poetic. (Full Review)

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Emma Peters – As she careens toward her 35th birthday, wannabe thespian Emma (Monia Chakri, in a winning performance) decides that she’s had it with failed auditions and slogging through a humiliating day job. She’s convinced herself that 35 is the “expiry” date for actresses anyway. So, she prepares for a major change…into the afterlife. Unexpectedly lightened by her decision, she cheerfully begins to check off her bucket list, giving away possessions, and making her own funeral arrangements. However, when she develops an unforeseen relationship with a lonely young funeral director, her future is uncertain, and the end may not be near. A funny-sad romantic romp in the vein of Harold and Maude, from Belgian-American writer-director Nicole Palo. (Full Review)

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Hot Mess – Comedian-playwright Sarah Gaul does an endearing turn in writer-director Lucy Coleman’s mumblecore comedy about a 25 year-old budding playwright and college dropout who suffers from a lack of focus in her artistic and amorous pursuits. She expends an inordinate amount of her creative juice composing songs about Toxic Shock Syndrome. She becomes obsessed with a divorced guy who seems “nice” but treats her with increasing indifference once they’ve slept together. And so on. The narrative meanders at times, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. (Full Review)

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Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full Review)

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Liza, the Fox Fairy – If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale).

The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?).

Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. (Full Review)

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A Matter of Size – When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. Then there’s Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of this delightful comedy from Israel.

Sweet, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant. After being cruelly fired for (essentially) his overweight appearance, Herzl falls into gloom. But when he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa)-his life takes unexpected turns.

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from their predominantly corpulent cast, but to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity intact. (Full Review)

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Mutual Friends – I’ve always found dinner parties to be a fascinating microcosm of human behavior; ditto genre films like The Anniversary Party, The Boys in the Band, and my all-time favorite Don’s Party. Sort of an indie take on Love, Actually, director Matthew Watts’ no-budget charmer centers on a group of neurotic New Yorkers (is that redundant?) converging for a surprise party.

In accordance with the Strict Rules of Dinner Party Narratives, logistics go awry, misunderstandings abound, unexpected romance ensues, and friendships are sorely tested. Despite formulaic trappings, the film is buoyed by clever writing, an engaging ensemble, and cheerful reassurance that your soul mate really is out there…somewhere. (Full Review)

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A Summer’s Tale – It’s nearly 8 minutes into this delightful 1996 Eric Rohmer film (which had a belated U.S. first-run in 2014) before anyone speaks; and it’s a young man calling a waitress over so he can order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud) will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets the bubbly Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending the summer working as a waitress at her aunt’s seaside crepery.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. Don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry; even first-time Rohmer viewers will surely glean the late French director’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). (Full Review)

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2 Days in New York – Writer-director-star Julie Delpy’s 2012 sequel to her 2007 comedy 2 Days in Paris catches up with her character Marion, who now has a son and a new man in her life, a long-time friend turned lover Mingus (Chris Rock) who has added his tween daughter to the mix. The four live together in a cozy Manhattan loft.

Marion and Mingus are the quintessential NY urban hipster couple; she’s a photo-journalist and conceptual artist; he’s a radio talk show host who also writes for the Village Voice. Marion is on edge. She has an important gallery show coming up, and her eccentric family has just flown in from France for a visit and to get acquainted with her new Significant Other. The buttoned-down Mingus is in for a bit of culture shock. And yes-Franco-American culture-clash mayhem ensues. Smart, funny and engaging throughout. (Full Review)

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Your Sister’s Sister – This offering from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton is a romantic “love triangle” dramedy reminiscent of Chasing Amy. It’s a talky but thoroughly engaging look at the complexities of modern relationships, centering on a slacker man-child (Mark Duplass) his deceased brother’s girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt), who all bumble into a sort of unplanned “encounter weekend” together at a remote family cabin. Funny, insightful and well-acted. (Full Review)

Viral videos: 10 movies you never want to catch

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 1, 2020)

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This city is being closed off in a way that China has never done before — or even any other major modern city, really, hasn’t done it in recent times. [The Chinese government] quickly expanded it to not just Wuhan, but to other cities, so that there were tens of millions of people who were essentially forced to stay at home and not allowed to go out. They’ve just put in place the biggest lockdown that we’ve ever seen and what experts are saying is the biggest experiment in public health that they’ve ever seen.

That may read like a film treatment for an apocalyptic thriller, but it’s from a January 30th NPR broadcast of the New York Times-produced program The Daily. The comment was made by New York Times overseas reporter Javier Hernandez, who was being interviewed by the show’s host, Michael Barbaro. Hernandez was giving a chilling account as to what has been happening on the ground in China in the wake of the outbreak of Coronavirus. Barbaro followed Hernandez’s comment with this observation:

It’s hard to imagine most any other country being able to mount that kind of a response. I mean, I’m just trying to fathom an American city somehow being locked down.

[Hernandez] So this is what it looks like when China’s authoritarian system is in full force. There’s no choice for people to leave. Many people are stuck there. They are going to hospitals that are overcrowded, but they can’t get the health care they need. Doctors are complaining about a lack of medical supplies and critical items like masks and goggles. And you get the sense that people are kind of stuck with what they have, and that’s the bargain they’ve made by living in this system. They have no choice but to follow the government’s orders. They can’t push back. They can’t swim against the current here. Everyone’s essentially forced to comply with this mass lockdown. […]

China has built this system, this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party, you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad, you are the one who is going to take responsibility. You are the one who is going to fall. And this has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news. […]

[Barbaro] So by the time something like, say, a medical crisis gets really big, it may be too late for the local officials who have been trying to contain it themselves and keep it from Beijing.

[Hernandez] Exactly. These kinds of dynamics played a huge role in the scale of the SARS outbreak. It was clear in this case that local officials knew exactly what was going on. They knew that people were dying of this illness. But for months and months, they didn’t want to report it up the chain. Instead, they tried to cover it up. They tried to see if they could perhaps deal with it secretly, and maybe nobody would ever find out about it. They hoped that Beijing would know about it. But eventually it broke. […]

[Barbaro] So that [culture of covering up] had trickled down all the way to the frontline health care workers, who are supposed to be treating this and sounding the alarm.

 [Hernandez] Right. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out. And when you think about where this virus might be headed next — to other provinces, to other cities — you have to wonder if these same dynamics would be playing out again. If people will stay silent, if they will not report official cases, because they fear for their jobs and they fear for their livelihoods. […]

And so when you look at the culture, you wonder whether China can actually contain these viruses, whether we will continue to live in a world where the internal politics of the party are going to put lives around the world in danger.

Well, that’s not very…reassuring.

Of course, China is not the source of every virus outbreak. And now that the coronavirus has officially been declared a “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization, finger-pointing should be the last thing on the agenda. Health officials worldwide have mobilized, necessary precautions are being taken wherever practical, and scientific research has begun in earnest regarding the possible development of a vaccine.

In the meantime, wash your hands, eat your Wheaties, and then wash your hands again. Oh…and did you hear that the Doomsday Clock is now at 100 seconds to midnight? With those cheery thoughts in mind, here’s a few “viral” films you might want to, erm…catch:

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

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Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2020…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem  immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”).

Screenwriter Dario Poloni blurs the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. Whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is that simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

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Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takes the network narrative formula that propelled his film Traffic and applies it to this cautionary vision of sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.

However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues.

By reining in his powerhouse cast and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it “real” (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering exercise.

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The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a NYC smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller.

Patient Zero is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City.

A montage depicting how city officials administer the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a health department worker offers a shot to one distrustful fellow, he says “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).

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The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 Will Smith version).

In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a ass-kicking babe in the Pam Grier mold.

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Panic in the Streets– While this is another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year- a little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).

Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald. Look for Zero Mostel in one of his earliest roles, and Jack Palance (this was his big-screen debut).

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Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have an indeterminate amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily a “death sentence”.

The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they (naturally) begin to fall in love (insert metaphor here; or as the old Burt Bacharach and Hal David song goes – “…you get enough germs to catch pneumonia.”).

What makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre is that while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question becomes not “can humanity be saved in time?” …but rather “can humanity make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”

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Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to avail himself of the perks at his disposal.

Court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes twists and turns, ultimately bringing him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude of the film gives you a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague in that era.

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Twelve Monkeys– Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of humanity. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he a delusional schizophrenic living in the year 1996? I’m not telling.

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28 Days Later– Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.

In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man, a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is in reality not “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way).

The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary.

Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.

Ten years gone: Top 10 films of the last decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 25, 2020)

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Really? Another decade slipped by again when I wasn’t looking? This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the 400+ first-run films I reviewed between 2010 and 2019 and share my picks for the top 10 of the past 10 years. Happy viewing! Alphabetically…

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Black KkKlansman –So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.

(Full review)

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Blade Runner: 2049 So many films passing themselves off as “sci-fi” these days are needlessly loud and jarringly flash-cut. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story is not as deep or complex as the film makers want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90-minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing and immersive. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

(Full review)

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Certified Copy – Just when you’re being 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 it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “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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Computer Chess – The most original sci-fi film of 2013 proved you don’t need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people’s minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to watch. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird…then weirder. Dig that final shot!

(Full review)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of  writer-director Wes Anderson. To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession. I kind of enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to Anderson’s previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

(Full review)

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Love and Mercy – Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years.

(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 found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver a pair of knockout performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull.

(Full review)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam. What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

(Full review)

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Samsara – Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity.

(Full review)

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed, and cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

(Full review)

 

 

 

Burning with optimism’s flames: A New Year’s mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2019)

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Charles Pierce wrote a great Esquire piece today about the difficulty of holding on to optimism as we head into a new year during trying times. He says: “Optimism is not exactly something that’s just lying around on the floor, waiting to be picked up. It’s something we have to work for again. It’s a heavy lift, but a necessary one. All we have as we enter 2020 is, well, us.” He’s right…it’s up to us to keep the fire burning. Chin-chin.

Tired of Guy Lombardo? Here are 10 more alternate tunes to ring in the new year…

  1. “Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

2. “1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

3. “1921” – The Who – I always listen to this first thing when I wake up New Year’s Day. Somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather

4.  “Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

5.  “New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” Fabulous live version, with The Edge pulling double duty on keys.

6.  “Celtic New Year” – Van Morrison – Speaking of Ireland: Van the Man! If I don’t see you through the week, see you through the window…

7. “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

8. “Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer guitar solo by Elliot Randall.

9. “New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

10. “Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

Happy New Year!

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2019

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 28, 2019)

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As the year closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2019. Per usual I present them alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77-year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

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Dolemite is My Name – This film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a biopic about the late cult comedian and film maker Rudy Ray Moore to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who co-scripted Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic) the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety. While it doesn’t tell the complete story, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.  (Full review)

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Driveways – There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.

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The Edge of Democracy– Latin American countries have a long history as ever-simmering cauldrons of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something even more insidious at play in her country these days than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of her predecessor, the wildly popular progressive reformer Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

The real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during these events. This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; “we” have more in common with Brazil than you might think.  (Full review)

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The Irishman – If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so funny. “Funny” how? It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!  (Full review)

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MonosLord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).   (Full review)

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Putin’s Witnesses – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he “campaigns” for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history.  (Full review)

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This is Not Berlin Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.

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Wild Rose – It’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. I loved the cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!