Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Oh, mama…can this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2009)

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Sometimes, you see a little kicker on the evening news that puts everything into perspective. Such was the discovery this past Monday that an “object” has recently bombarded the planet Jupiter. As of this writing, experts are not sure if it was a comet, an asteroid, or whatever-but it was a doozey. By initial accounts, the impact area is nearly the size of the Earth. I’m no astronomer, but that is one big-ass event. It just makes our silly little concerns about religion, politics, war and commerce all seem so…silly, dunnit?

At any rate, the entertainment value of Armageddon (hey-there’s an upside to everything) certainly has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether it is precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues or mankind’s curious propensity for continuing to seek new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature (make it a Theme Night!). As per usual, I am presenting the list alphabetically, in no particular preferential order. So enjoy, er…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, post-modernist re-imagining of Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it compelling. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the story joins a Yuppified Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he jets in to New York with his personal assistant, Magdalena (British alt-rocker P.J. Harvey) in tow (they check in to their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”).

This is anything but your typical business trip, as J.C. is in town to do Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. The kid has his doubts, however about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also on hand to do hostile takeovers of as many souls as he can during the world’s final few hours.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s deep in its own way.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

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

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the propensity for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why they bothered to make this shit up.

In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…“funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm goes awry).

There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Alien “highway” crew

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

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

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

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

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

Double bill: w/ On the Beach

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

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

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). 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.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. 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. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer, by the way.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomous conflict of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of many other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal).

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact

In a rit of fealous jage: A tribute to Blake Edwards

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2010)

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When I heard that director Blake Edwards had died earlier this week, at 88, I felt like I had lost an old friend. I grew up watching his films. He dabbled in many genres, and was proficient in all, but especially adept at comedy. He was one of a handful of filmmakers who could sell me on slapstick; he had a knack for choreographing sequences of pratfalls (executed with balletic precision) that became funnier and funnier the longer they ran on. He was a superb screenwriter as well. Here are my top ten picks from the Blake Edwards oeuvre (37 feature films from 1955-1995), alphabetically:

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s-Edwards turned Truman Capote’s novel about a farm girl who moves to the Big Apple and reinvents herself as a Manhattan socialite into a damn near perfect film (Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate role as a  racial stereotype aside). Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard (both at the peak of their attractiveness) are a stunning screen couple. A funny, sophisticated, and bittersweet story, wonderfully directed, acted, written (George Axelrod adapted) and set to a great Henry Mancini score (it wasn’t the first time Edwards collaborated with the composer, and certainly not the last-they worked together on close to 30 films over several decades).

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Days of Wine and Roses-This shattering drama was jarring for its time (apparently prompting a rash of opening-week walkouts by Jack Lemmon fans expecting another comic role). The film still packs a wallop in its depiction of a couple (Lemmon and Lee Remick) and their descent into a co-dependent alcoholic hell. Lemmon and the frequently underrated Remick deliver their finest performances.

Everyone remembers the  “greenhouse scene”, but for me the most memorable moment arrives in the “padded room” scene, with a sweating, screaming, strait-jacketed Lemmon writhing in withdrawal. Call it “method” or whatever, but it remains one of the top examples of an actor completely “in the moment” ever captured on film. Henry Mancini won an Oscar for the lovely theme song.

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The Great Race– While this 1965 Edwards comedy-adventure about a turn-of-the-century New York to Paris auto race begins to overstay its welcome about 2/3 of the way through, after revisiting it recently, I have to say that the laughs have held up quite well. Clocking in at a whopping 160 minutes, it was released at a time when overblown, big-budgeted comedies with huge international casts were in vogue (especially in the wake of the mega-hit It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963). But what a cast-Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn  (to name a few).

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The Party-Director Edwards and mercurial acting genius Peter Sellers paired up many times, but I think this 1968 gem is not only their best collaboration, but frame-for-frame, one of the all-time great screen comedies.

Sellers is Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian actor with a bit part in a Hollywood war epic who somehow manages to ruin an expensive day of shooting by (riotously) overplaying his death scene. The exasperated director calls for the actor’s head, and Bakshi’s name ends up on a studio exec’s hurriedly scribbled “to do” list. Through a comedy of errors, Bakshi’s name is instead added to a guest list for a party being organized by the executive’s wife. The bumbling (if well-meaning) Bakshi proceeds to make a riotous shambles of the event.

Sellers’ knack for physical comedy is right up there with the best of Chaplin and Keaton. A guitar-wielding Claudine Longet is also on board as the love interest, and purrs a jazzy number in one scene.

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S.O.B.-Whereas The Party was a relatively benign poke at Tinseltown, this 1981 dramedy offers a  more jaundiced view of the Hollywood machine, which has chewed up and spit out a producer (Richard Mulligan). He flips out after his latest film, a high-budget, G-rated musical starring his singer-actress wife (Julie Andrews) tanks with critics and flops at the box office.  Desperate to salvage it, he comes up with an idea to buy the film back from the studio, and “sex it up” by convincing his wife to re-shoot her part, including nude scenes, which would turn her “wholesome” image on its head.

Edwards’ screenplay is supposedly laced with autobiographical touches (as you may well  know, Edwards was married to a certain singer-actress…whose name rhymes with “Julie Andrews”). It’s Edwards’ most cynical film, but also quite funny. The great cast includes William Holden (sadly, his final role), Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber, Larry Hagman, Loretta Swit, and Shelly Winters. Robert Preston is priceless as a “Dr. Feelgood” MD. It’s worth the price of admission to hear a ‘luded-up Andrews utter her immortal line: “Oh…Hi, Polly! Come to see my boobies?”

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A Shot in the Dark-This second outing in the “Pink Panther” series is my favorite entry. The fact that the lovely Elke Sommer is in this film has no bearing on my appraisal. I wanted to make that clear. Okay, maybe it has a little bearing. Sommer is Maria Gambrelli, the maid who might have “dunnit”. That is, shot her rich employer’s limo driver. Or did she? It’s up to Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) to figure that out, as more victims start dropping like flies.

There are so many great gags and classic exchanges in this one, including a memorable sequence in a nudist colony. Herbert Lom (who had previously co-starred with Sellers in several classic Ealing Studios comedies) introduces the character of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who would become a fixture in subsequent sequels.

I feel this is the best one of the series because it strikes a perfect middle ground between the first film (which actually played it more sophisticated and fairly straight, as did Sellers) and the later films, which, while quite entertaining, became more and more far-fetched and cartoon-like as the franchise found more box office success.

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The Tamarind Seed-A largely forgotten, but absorbing and worthwhile Edwards film from 1974, this was his nod to cold war spy thrillers like From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Deadly Affair and Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (the latter film which, interestingly, also featured Julie Andrews). Andrews co-stars here with Omar Sharif. She is a British civil servant, he is a Russian spy, and, well, you can guess what happens next. And yes, it does create “conflicts of interest” for the lovers, which makes for intrigue and suspense, with a sultry Caribbean backdrop. Edwards adapted the screenplay from the novel by Evelyn Anthony. Unfortunately, there is no Region 1 DVD release; perhaps there will be now?

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10– Talk about a “perfect” storm-Blake Edwards’ writing and directing skills, Dudley Moore’s impeccable comic timing, and Bo Derek’s, erm, well…Bo Derek-ness. Moore is a 40-something L.A. songwriter with a devoted girlfriend (Julie Andrews) and a long time friend/songwriting partner (Robert Webber) who both dutifully warn him that they can see signs of a looming mid-life crisis. After spotting  a beautiful young woman (Derek), he becomes obsessed with her. Temporarily insane with unrequited lust, he decides to follow her (and her boyfriend) to Mexico, where they are headed for a holiday. Much middle aged craziness (and hilarity) ensues.

Moore is so dead-on funny that you don’t really stop to consider that his character can be seen as a creepy stalker at times. The narrative does take an interesting about-face about 2/3 of the way through, turning into an introspective and melancholic morality tale. It is vastly entertaining, however, with excellent performances by all. Brian Dennehy is a standout as a philosophical bartender.

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Victor/Victoria-A fluffy but entertaining rom-com starring (wait for it) Julie Andrews, who plays an underemployed, classically-trained soprano scraping by in 1930s Paris. She befriends another unemployed singer (Robert Preston), who was recently booted from his gig at a cabaret. He cooks up a scheme that he is convinced will get them both out of the poorhouse: He will be her manager, and she will pose as a “he”, who impersonates a “she” onstage. Get it? Genius! Are there complications? Of course there are-and that’s when the fun starts. James Garner and Lesley Ann Warren are wonderful. Henry Mancini is on board again with a great musical score. Triple-threat Andrews sings, acts and dances with her usual aplomb.

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Wild Rovers-Blake Edwards made a western? Yes, he did, and not a half-bad one at that. A world-weary cowhand (William Holden) convinces a younger (and somewhat dim) co-worker (Ryan O’Neal) that since it’s obvious that they’ll never really get ahead in their present profession, they should give bank robbery a shot. They get away with it, but then find themselves on the run, oddly, not so much from the law, but from their former employer (Karl Malden), who is mightily offended that anyone who worked for him would do such a thing. Episodic and leisurely paced, but ambles along quite agreeably, thanks to the charms of the two leads, and the beautiful, expansive photography by Philip Lathrop. Ripe for rediscovery.

10 more to explore: Operation Petticoat, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, The Carey Treatment, The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Micki + Maude, Blind Date, Switch.

Let’s see what’s on the slab: Top 10 Midnight Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 29, 2010)

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Tonight, I thought I’d paw through the “midnight movie” section of my library and assemble my Top 10 picks for your All Hallows Eve holiday “cheer”. As I have around 150 titles in this genre, it wasn’t easy narrowing it down; since my tastes tend to run toward the offbeat in general, this was akin to asking someone to choose their favorite child (the hell I go through for you people). Keep in mind-when it comes to picking favorite “cult” films, the axiom “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” comes into play. As per usual, presented in alphabetical order:

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Lust in the Dust, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”.

Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Wait ‘til you meet Doris the Dominatrix!

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Eraserhead-If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my fifty-odd years on the planet, it’s that when it comes to the films of David Lynch, there is no middle ground. You either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. You buy a ticket to a Lynch film, my friend, you’d best be willing to take the ride-and he will take you for a ride. And do you want to know the really weird thing about his films? They get funnier with each viewing. Yes, “funny”, as in “ha-ha” . I think the secret to his enigmatic approach to telling a story is that Lynch is in reality having the time of his life being impenetrably enigmatic-he’s sitting back and chuckling at all the futile attempts to dissect and make “sense” of his narratives. For example, have you noticed how I’ve managed to dodge and weave and avoid giving you any kind of plot summary? I suspect that David Lynch would find that fucking hysterical.

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Forbidden Zone- Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Guy Maddin, Busby Berkeley and the Quay Brothers. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisted family who discovers a portal to a sort of pan-dimensional…aw, fuck it. Suffice it to say, any film with Herve Villchaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrell as his Queen and a scene featuring Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway in a devil costume is a dream for film geeks; and a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother, Richard.

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Harold and Maude-Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where they Meet Cute.

The effervescent Maude is Harold’s opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens.

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Liquid Sky – A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score for his 1982 curio. Deeply weird, yet eminently watchable (I’ve seen it more times than I’m willing to confess in mixed company).

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The Loved One-When it was originally released back in 1965, this film had a pretty unusual tag line for the era: “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” Even by today’s standards, this one is pretty unusual.

The perennially gap-toothed Robert Morse (who can be currently seen on AMC’s hit series Mad Men, playing senior partner Bertram Cooper) plays a befuddled Englishman, making a valiant effort to fully process the cultural madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood movie studio.

Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable cosmetician (Anjanette Comer) who prepares “loved ones” for open casket funerals, gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically just reacts to the bevy of wack-jobs he encounters. In fact, he is the only character in the film that doesn’t seem completely out of his goddamn mind.

The unbelievable cast includes Jonathan Winters (playing several roles with his usual aplomb), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Liberace…and nothing, I mean nothing could ever prepare the uninitiated for Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer who has a very interesting relationship with his mother (who may have been the model for Edith Massey’s baby crib-bound grotesque in Pink Flamingos). Tony Richardson directed, and the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel.

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Meet the Feebles-Long before he was concerning himself with bringing CGI-enhanced orcs and hobbits to life, director Peter Jackson was working with considerably lower production budgets (as in: next to nothing), and letting has overactive imagination make up the difference in off-beat indie projects like this one from 1990. It’s a sordid backstage tale about a neurotic diva who heads the cast of a popular TV variety show.

So what makes it a midnight movie? Well, there’s lots of graphic sex, gory violence, and drug use. OK (you may rebut) but that’s the kind of thing one can see on premium cable any day of the week. Yes-but how often do you see puppets engaging in those activities? Adorable, fuzzy-wuzzy anthropomorphic animal puppets, committing all 7 deadly sins (and a few extra ones you may have never thought of before). You really have to see it, to believe it.

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Pink Flamingos-“Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of bad taste John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man), Divine, was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her scuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it all the way through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of the oeuvre.

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Repo Man-As off-the-wall as it is, this punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by a sage veteran named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto feels he may have found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox also tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix. Great use of L.A. locations. The fabulous punk rock soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show-Arguably the ultimate midnight movie. 35 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but a killer lineup of knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred” with some readers, I will now publicly admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice…

RIP David Carradine: All life is precious…

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

…nor can any be replaced.

I was sad to hear about David Carradine’s passing . He may not have always been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft.

According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there).

I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:

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Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for a  fledgling director named Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.

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Americana– David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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Death Race 2000 At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

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Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (music was his first love).

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The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from  action film maestro Walter Hill. One of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).

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Q, The Winged SerpentI know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it actually contains one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (a demented performance) is the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some wry lines; in fact I think he displays his knack for  subtle comedy throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark.

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Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you knew at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of his most plum late-career roles, as the bad, bad, man at the top of Uma Thurman’s hit list.

Let’s start a (virtual) fistfight: Top 10 Films of the Decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2009)

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I know you didn’t ask, but being that it’s “that time of year” for the inevitable Top 10 lists, AND “that time of the decade” as well, I thought I might offer up my picks for (tympani roll, please) the Top 10 films of uh, erm…WTF do we call it-the “Aughts”?

At any rate, here for your consideration, edification, or (most likely reaction) eternal damnation, is my list, subjective as hell (please keep grain of salt handy). As per usual, they are presented in alphabetical order, NOT in order of preference or rank. Cheers…

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Amelie-I know this one has its haters (?!), but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film stole this reviewer’s heart. Audrey Tautou lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (and benign devil) and commit random, anonymous acts of kindness. The plight of Amelie’s “people in need” is suspiciously similar to her own-those who need that little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures. Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You’ll have to see for yourself. Whimsical, original, humanistic and life-affirming, Amelie will melt the most cynical of hearts.

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American Splendor– From the streets of Cleveland! Paul Giamatti was born to play underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, the misanthropic file clerk/armchair philosopher who became a cult figure through his collaborations with legendary illustrator R. Crumb. Co-directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini keep their biopic fresh and engaging via some unusual choices, like breaking down the fourth wall by having the real Pekar interacting with Giamatti in several scenes; it’s quite effective. Hope Davis is excellent as Pekar’s deadpan wife. Thoroughly engaging and surprisingly moving at times, this is one film that genuinely “made me laugh and made me cry”-and I don’t say that very often.

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The Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the decade features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a huge, supernaturally cunning man-eating creature that is terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact with me and quickly scurry to the other side of the street? (I thought so.) Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do for you. Regardless, this lushly photographed and handsomely produced epic is exciting, sexy, and one-of-a-kind.

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The Fellowship of the Ring-Taken as a whole, Peter Jackson’s gargantuan film trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s revered fantasy-adventure is not without its flaws (and fanboy-lamented abridgements and revisions), but he damn near gets it all pitch-perfect in the first installment. Even though it is only the beginning of the epic tale, the original book was always my favorite volume. I think it’s because it sparks that joy of first discovering Tolkien’s wondrous fantasy world, and Jackson’s film does it proud. The two sequels tend to go a little over the top, but this film maintains a perfect blend of character, heart, and rousing heroics; not to mention an immersive sense of mythic time and place.

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Man on the Train-There are a only a handful of films I have seen in my lifetime that I have become  emotionally attached to, sometimes for reasons I can’t always comprehend (Koyaanisqatsi and Local Hero spring to mind). This is one of them. Perhaps 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 now.

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Man on Wire– Late in the summer of 1974, a diminutive Frenchman named Philippe Petit took a casual morning stroll across a ¾” steel cable, stretched between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center. On the surface, this may appear to be a straightforward documentary about this eccentric high wire artist who was either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. In actuality, it is one of the best suspense/heist movies of the decade, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also very romantic, although it is not a traditional love story. Like Petit’s sky-high walk itself, James Marsh’s film is ultimately an act of pure aesthetic grace, and deeply profound. (Full review)

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip– This amazing rockumentary, an alternately exhilarating and melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer was directed by George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl). The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Rodney comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger. Although the film is ostensibly “about” Rodney, it is ultimately a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze and informed by its subject’s Zelig-like propensity to have been photographed with seemingly everybody who was ever anybody in the business. So is he a true “rock impresario”, or just a glorified Rupert Pupkin? You decide.

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Memories of Murder-Buoyed by its artful production and knockout performances, this brutal, uncompromising police procedural from director Joon-ho Bong really gets under your skin. Based on the true story of South Korea’s first known serial killer, it follows a pair of rural homicide investigators as they search for a prime suspect. Initially, they seem bent on instilling more fear into the local citizenry than the lurking killer, as they proceed to violate every civil liberty known to man. Soon, however, the team’s dynamic is tempered by the addition of a more cool-headed detective from Seoul, who takes the profiler approach. The film doubles as a fascinating glimpse into modern Korean culture.

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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 beyond description, it also tells a beautiful story-funny, touching, exciting and empowering.

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There Will Be Blood– What you see in the dialog-free prologue of Paul Thomas Andersons’ gripping epic may not be as seminal as Kubrick’s “dawn of man” sequence in 2001, but it does put the focus on something just as primordial. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism. And this very American “ideal” (love it or loathe it) has never been so perfectly embodied as it is in Daniel Day Lewis’ magnificent performance as self-made oil man Daniel Plainview. In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. And trust me-he WILL “…drink your milkshake”. (Full review)

The docu-horror picture show: Top 10 Documentaries for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2008)

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Whatever happened to Fay Wray?

In honor of Halloween weekend (we can call it that, when Halloween falls on a Friday, right?), and in a desperate search of a theme for this week’s post (heh), I thought I’d eschew the usual “Top 10 Horror Films” tact in favor of something really scary-real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never really match the thrills, the chills and grotesqueness of, say, reading the newspaper, watching CNN, going online to look at your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for next Tuesday’s election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.

So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 10 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?

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The Atomic Café-Whoopee we’re all gonna die! In a big, scary mushroom cloud. But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this harrowingly funny compilation of U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era, that were originally designed to “educate” the public about how to best “survive” a nuclear attack (all you have to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which generally reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage of shelling from, oh I don’t know… a really big field howitzer. The genius of the film lies in its complete lack of narration (irony speaks louder than words, too). This also gives the film a timeless quality; you could very easily apply its “message” to the current world stage (everything old is new again). It makes a perfect double bill with Dr. Strangelove.

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Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather the pressures of the trial and the media circus that surrounds it.

The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)

The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.

Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.

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The Corporation– While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Cruise-I used to hang out with a co-worker who had a bit of an enigmatic soul. He would pace about his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?

If you can take it, you might want to check out this one-of-a-kind doc that spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses. Levitch’s world view is, um, interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he just another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The full horror of schizophrenia can only be truly known by those who are afflicted, but this rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston comes pretty close to being the next worse thing to actually being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between inspired creativity and mental illness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).

The filmmakers recount a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.

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Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.

Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).

The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The high camp appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation (I think that’s a first for a documentary) ran for 2 years.

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In the Realms of the Unreal-Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but nonetheless makes for a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously composed in long hand over a period of decades (literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites (the”Vivian Girls”).

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to catch last year). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work, with actors reading excerpts from the tome.

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An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. Former VP/Oscar winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties.

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Zoo-In 2005, when the Seattle press originally broke the story of a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses, that alone was disturbing . But when it was revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.

That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this is an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, filmmakers Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede keep a sensitive, neutral tone; it’s not as exploitative as you might assume.