Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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Mike Nichols passed away earlier this week. Perhaps more than any other film director I can think of, his catalog (stretching from 1966 to 2007) encapsulates the crucial paradigm shifts in America’s social mores (and to some extent, changes in the political landscape) over the past 50 years.

I also consider him one of the progenitors of the modern “dramedy”, enriched by his background in comedy improv (he was a key player in an early 60s troupe that would morph into Second City) and in his experience as a theater director. He was, in every sense of the term, an “actor’s director”, clearly evident from the iconic performances that he coaxed from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I don’t think he ever made  a “bad” film, which makes it difficult to narrow down favorites…but I’ll spotlight  my top three choices:

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

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

Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. Don’t forget, the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

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The Graduate- “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner.

Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.

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Silkwood– The tagline for this 1983 film was intriguing: “On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there.” One might expect a riveting conspiracy thriller to ensue; however what director Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arden do deliver is an absorbing character study of an ordinary working-class woman who performed an act of extraordinary courage which may have led to her untimely demise.

Meryl Streep delivers a typically masterful performance as  Silkwood, who worked as a chemical tech at an Oklahoma facility that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. On behalf of her union (and based on her own observations) Silkwood testified before the AEC in 1974, blowing the whistle on health and safety issues at her plant. Shortly afterwards, she tested positive for an unusually high level of plutonium contamination. Silkwood alleged malicious payback from her employers, while they countered that she had engineered the scenario herself.

Later that year, on the last night of her life, she was in fact on her way to meeting with a Times reporter, armed with documentation to back her claims, when she was killed after her car ran off the road. Nichols stays neutral on the conspiratorial whispers; but still delivers the goods, thanks in no small part to his exemplary cast, including Kurt Russell (as Silkwood’s husband), and Cher (who garnered critical raves and a Golden Globe) as their housemate.

Also recommended: Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, The Day of the Dolphin, Working Girl, Primary Colors, Angels in America, Charlie Wilson’s War (my review).

Tracks of my fears: Last Passenger (*1/2) & a Top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2014)

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Uh…I believe that was my stop: Last Passenger

You don’t see that many train thrillers these days. They’re still around, but it seems that filmmakers aren’t pumping them out as frequently as they once did. And if you do see one, more often than not you have seen it before. Could it simply be “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”? Don’t know. Mongo only pawn, in game of life. Have something to do with where choo-choo go. Or perhaps it’s one of those movie genres that has simply played itself out. End of the line, literally and figuratively. But they do still try (oh, how they try!).

The latest attempt is the UK import Last Passenger, the feature-length debut for writer-director Omid Nooshin. Dougray Scott stars as a doctor (a widower) headed home on a late night London commuter train with his young son (Joshua Kaynama). As the train nears the end of its run, only a handful of passengers are left, including a young woman (Kara Tointon) bent on ingratiating herself with the doctor and his son, a young Polish hothead (Iddo Goldberg) who gets belligerent when a train guard asks him to put out his cigarette, a quiet and unassuming middle aged woman (Lindsay Duncan) and an enigmatic businessman (David Schofield).

Once the young hothead calms down, normalcy returns. All seems quiet. Too quiet. Faster than you can say “the lady vanishes”, the train guard mysteriously disappears, right about the time the  passengers realize the train is blowing by its regularly scheduled stops…and “someone” has sabotaged the brakes. Uh-oh.

It reads like an intriguing setup for some good old-fashioned “thrills and chills on a runaway train”, but unfortunately the proceedings get bogged down by lackluster character development, uneven pacing, over-reliance on red herrings and gaping plot holes big enough to drive a flaming, out-of-control locomotive through.

Scott and Goldberg do the best they can with the material that they’re given, but Duncan’s talents are completely wasted and Tointon, while lovely, makes for a woodenly unconvincing romantic interest. I don’t know, maybe they caught me on a bad night, but if you buy the ticket, you’re going to have to take the ride. I’d rather take the bus. Or walk.

OK,  this week’s film  isn’t exactly a genre classic. However, if you are still up for catching a train thriller, here are my picks for 5 that are:

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La Bete Humaine– The term film noir hadn’t become part of the cinematic lexicon yet, but Jean Renoir’s naturalistic 1938 thriller could arguably be considered one of the genre’s blueprints; in fact, it still looks and feels quite contemporary. Jean Gabin is mesmerizing as a brooding train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits uncontrollable acts of violence, usually precipitated by sexual excitation (Freudians will have a field day with all those POV shots of Gabin chugging his big, powerful locomotive through long dark tunnels).

The beautiful Simone Simon sets the mold for all future femme fatales, played with an earthy sexuality not usually found in films of the era. Curt Courant’s moody cinematography, and an overall vibe of existential malaise doesn’t exactly make for a popcorn flick, but noir fans will eat it up. Fritz Lang’s 1954 remake, Human Desire starred Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.

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Emperor of the North– The “train-top donnybrook” is a time-honored tradition in action movies (and has helped put more than one stunt man’s kid through college), but for my money, few can top the climactic confrontation between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in this 1973 adventure directed by the eclectic Robert Aldrich.

Marvin plays a Depression-era hobo who is considered a sort of “A lister” among those who ride the rails of the Pacific Northwest; the ultimate “ramblin’ guy” who knows how to keep one step ahead of the dreaded railroad bulls. Borgnine plays his nemesis, a sadistic railroad conductor who prides himself on the fact that no hobo has ever made it to the end of the line on his watch (he sees to that personally, usually in medieval fashion). Marvin is up for the challenge; it’s a steam-powered “battle of the titans”. Keith Carradine gives an interesting performance as a cocky, not-so-bright wannabe who attaches himself to Marvin’s coattails. The film works as both rollicking adventure yarn and offbeat character study.

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The Lady Vanishes– This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description.

The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out (oh, he may have some romantic motivations as well). Full of great twists and turns, and the Master truly keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may seem creaky, but for my money, that’s what lends this film its charm. It’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

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Silver Streak– Director Arthur Hiller and Harold & Maude screenwriter Colin Higgins teamed up for this highly entertaining 1976 comedy-thriller, an unabashed homage to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Gene Wilder stars as an unassuming, bookish fellow who innocently becomes enmeshed in murder and intrigue during a train trip from L.A. to Chicago. Along the way, he also finds romance with a charming woman (Jill Clayburgh) who works for a shady gentleman (Patrick McGoohan) and bromance with a car thief (Richard Pryor) who may be his best hope for getting out of his predicament.

It’s pure popcorn escapism, bolstered by the genuine chemistry between the three leads. All the scenes with Wilder and Pryor together are pure comedy gold. Pryor had originally been slated to team up with Wilder two years earlier, as “Sherriff Bart” in Blazing Saddles, but Cleavon Little got the part; Wilder and Pryor ended up doing 3 more films together after Silver Streak.

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The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (original version)- In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled terrorists who hijack a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character, major to minor, is soaking in it),

Girls just wanna play 7th flat 9th chords: The Girls in the Band *** (& a Top 5 List)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 15, 2014)

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“I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

Of course, in these (allegedly) enlightened times, these might be considered trite questions. But there was a time, not so long ago, in a galaxy pretty close by, when these questions would be considered heresy by some. For example, back in 1938, the venerable (and otherwise progressively-minded) music magazine Down Beat ran an article entitled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior”.

That is but one of the eye-openers in an overall eye-opening documentary by Judy Chaikin called The Girls in the Band, which aims to chronicle the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form.

I know what you’re thinking. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington…they’ve had plenty of press over the years, right? Yes, they have. But (and not to denigrate those jazz giants) there is an important distinction…they are vocalists. Traditionally, as Chaikin points out in her film, that was a woman’s most accepted “place” in jazz. Piano? Sure, that was “allowed” (Hazel Scott, Jane Jarvis, Dorothy Donegan were early pioneers), but drums, vibes, guitar, horns, sax…fuhgettaboutit. Those take a man’s strength and stamina! But it turns out that female players have been acing it all along, having no problem keeping it (as my friend’s dad, a veteran jazz pianist, was fond of saying) “in the pocket”.

Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. Among the veteran interviewees, 88 year-old saxophonist Roz Cron gives the most fascinating perspective regarding the double roadblock of sexism and racism that she and her contemporaries bumped up against time and again (and not just from their male counterparts, who at times out-and-out mutinied against band leaders who invited female players to join or even merely sit in).

As the only white musician in the all-female outfit, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she experienced some Kafkaesque moments, especially while touring the deep South. Thanks to the pretzel logic of then extant Jim Crow “laws”, Cron was once arrested and jailed on a charge of “associating with Negroes”.

While things have since obviously (and thankfully) loosened up on the “judging by gender” front, some of the old prejudices die hard. One interviewee, composer/band leader Maria Schneider recounts one experience with an interviewer, who opened with “So, what’s it like to be a woman composer?” To which she replied “What’s it like to be a male journalist?” But there is optimism as well. As Schneider offers later in the film “I hope we get to the day soon where it’s not something people think about, and categorize.” I suppose you could say that Maria Schneider also has a dream…and it is a good dream.

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In keeping with the spirit of jazz, I thought I would improvise a bit on tonight’s theme and offer all you hep cats and kittens my righteous picks for the Top 5 jazz movies. Dig:

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All Night Long– Directed by Basil Deardon (The League of Gentlemen, The Assassination Bureau) this 1962 UK film stars Patrick McGoohan (still a couple years shy of achieving international fame as TV’s Secret Agent Man) chewing all the available scenery as an ambitious, conniving jazz drummer. Nel King and Paul Jarrico based their screenplay on Shakespeare’s Othello, with the action taking place in an upscale London jazz club over the course of one evening. While it’s quite entertaining on its own merits, the film’s rep is bolstered by the then-contemporary jazz heavyweights who appear onscreen (most notably, Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus). Richard Attenborough and Betsy Blair are also on board, and McGoohan proves that he isn’t half bad on the skins!

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a pristine, richly colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the formidable chops of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but the film is equally captivating whenever cameras turn away from the artists and casually linger on the audience or the environs (like showing sailboats lazily puffing past the festival grounds), while the music continues in the background.

The effect truly is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, half the fun is people-watching; rarely do you affix your gaze on the stage the entire time. In fact, Stern is breaking with film making conventions of the era; you are witnessing the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t flower until nearly a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Let’s Get Lost– The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide.

There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

The nodded-out Chet Baker we see in Bruce Weber’s extraordinary warts-and-all 1988 documentary (beautifully shot in B&W) is a man who appears several decades older than his chronological age (and sadly, as it turned out, has about a year left to live). Still, there are amazing (if fleeting) moments of clarity, where we get a glimpse of the genius that still burned within this tortured soul.

The opening  scene in particular, where Weber holds a close up of Baker’s ravaged road map of a face while he croons a plaintive rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue”, has to be one of the most naked, heartbreaking vocal performances ever captured on film. Haunting and one-of-a-kind, this is a must-see documentary.

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‘Round Midnight– Legendary sax player Dexter Gordon gives a knockout performance in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 drama (set in the late 1950s) about an American jazz musician who is invited to Paris for an extended engagement. Gordon’s character, Dale Turner, has been fighting a losing battle with the bottle, which has led to a dearth of gigs stateside. Turner is initially taken aback, but soon bolstered by his apparent cachet among the French (it’s no secret that African-American musicians were held in higher regard and treated with more respect abroad in those days that they were back home). Still, every day is a struggle for an addict, and as they say, “Wherever you go-there you are.” Excellent performances and magnificent playing from Gordon make this film a winner.

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The Warped Ones– The protagonist in this New Wave-influenced offering from director Koreyoshi Kurahara may not be a musician, but the film itself is permeated by a  jazz soundtrack, and assaults the senses like the atonal screeches in an improvisational sax solo. Tamio Kawachi gives a surly and unpredictable turn as Akira, a jazz-obsessed young hood who bilks tourists at the seedy jazz club he hangs out at with his hooker girlfriend (Noriko Matsumoto).

A nosy reporter narks him out and he does a stint in jail. After Akira gets out, he and his girlfriend are tooling around one of their favorite beach haunts in a stolen car when they happen upon said reporter, strolling with his fiancée. On the spur of the moment, Akira runs the reporter down and kidnaps his fiancée; launching a spree of uninhibitedly  anti-social behavior by this rebel without a cause. Not for all tastes (the film lives up to its title) but a prime sample of Japan’s unique take on the late 50s/early 60s youth rebellion genre.

…and here’s the “next five” that I’d recommend for your queue: Bird, The Gene Krupa Story, A Man Called Adam, Pete Kelly’s Blues, Sweet and Lowdown.

Too soon: R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2014)

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You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

And Hoffman did so without fail, in role after role, naked and unafraid. I’m sad beyond words that such a giant talent has left us so soon. Here are 10 “cringe-worthy” highlights:

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Almost Famous– Although it’s essentially a cameo, this is one of my favorite Hoffman performances.  He plays the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s auto-biographical  dramedy about a teenage journalist hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tag along and formulate a “think piece” about a touring rock band.

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Boogie Nights– While he wasn’t the star, this was Hoffman’s breakout performance. It’s a real testament to Hoffman’s genius that he managed to leave such an impression on audiences and critics with his supporting role as “Scotty J.” in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 opus about the 70s porno film industry; especially considering the huge cast.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead– Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, this nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, stars Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) to help him pull an ill-advised heist involving a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast, and superbly directed by Sidney Lumet.

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Capote- Undoubtedly the role Hoffman will be best remembered by, thanks to  his well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film.  It’s a riveting dramatization about the complex friendship that developed  between the writer and  convicted killer Perry Smith  while Capote was researching his “true crime” masterwork, In Cold Blood.. Hoffman isn’t merely playing Truman Capote in this movie, he is Truman Capote.

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Happiness– This 1998 Todd Solondz film features one of Hoffman’s under-appreciated turns. Admittedly, Solondz’s films may not be everyone’s cup of tea (be prepared for that “cringe” factor) but if you’re OK with network narratives involving nothing but completely fucked-up individuals, this is your ticket. Brave performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction.

And rounding off the top 10, here are links to my full reviews of five more films featuring notable Hoffman performances:

The Savages

Synecdoche NY

Ides of March

The Master

Pirate Radio

No future: Top 5 Thatcher era films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2013)

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Digby did a great post earlier this week with an interesting cultural angle regarding the passing of former British PM Margaret Thatcher. She recalls how the Thatcher era (1979-1990) “was a fertile period in British music”, that blossomed in tandem with the “very active political opposition to Thatcherism”. The socio-political ennui that fueled those punk anthems Dibgy cites also informed the work of some young British filmmakers. So as a sort of companion piece to Digby’s post, I’ve selected five films that share the ethos:

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High Hopes – “Guess what its name is?” asks Shirley (Ruth Sheen), whilst pointing at a potted cactus plant. When their house guest shrugs, her husband Cyril (Philip Davis) chimes in, “Thatcher! Because it’s a pain in the ass; prongs you every time you walk past it.” Cyril (an old-school Marxist who works as a motorbike messenger) and the earth-motherly Shirley are at the center of Mike Leigh’s wonderful 1988 character study.

In his usual leisurely yet compelling fashion, Leigh pulls you right into the world of this sweet, unpretentious working-class couple and the people in their orbit. There’s Cyril’s elderly mum (Edna Dore), with whom he dutifully stays in touch (despite the fact that she voted Tory in the last election, to his chagrin). Cyril’s shrill, self-centered sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) is a piece of work; while she also stays in touch with Mum, she sees it as a bothersome chore. Her exasperated husband (Martin Burke) is starting to view his marriage as a bothersome chore. And then there is an obnoxious yuppie couple (Lesley Manville and David Bamber) that you will love to hate.

Many of Leigh’s recurring themes are present; particularly class warfare and family dynamics (the thread about Cyril’s aging mother reminds me of Ozu’s Tokyo Story). And like most of Leigh’s films, it’s insightful, funny, poignant and ultimately life-affirming.

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The Ploughman’s Lunch – In a 2009 article in The Guardian, a number of UK writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and arts critics weighed in regarding Thatcherism’s effect on each of their respective fields. This was theater and film director Richard Eyre’s take:

Thatcher’s relentless emphasis on money and management and marketing illuminated the value of things that couldn’t be quantified, and her moronic mantra “there’s no such thing as society” gave the humanitarian and moral a conspicuous importance. So, although I didn’t think it at the time, it’s possible that Thatcher gave the arts a shot in the arm.

And indeed, Eyre’s 1983 film is probably the most politically subversive of my five selections. Bolstered by Ian McEwan’s incisive screenplay, the story is set on the eve of the Falklands War. Jonathan Pryce tackles the unenviable task of making us care about an inherently smarmy protagonist with considerable aplomb.

Pryce plays a cynical Oxford-educated Radio London news writer who falls madly in love with a TV journalist (Charlie Dore). She reciprocates in a platonic fashion. Frustrated, Pryce begs a pal (Tim Curry) who also happens to be Dore’s long-time co-worker for ideas. Curry suggests that Pryce, who has been commissioned to write a book on the Suez Crisis, could score points by ingratiating himself with Dore’s mother (Rosemary Harris), an historian who once wrote a commemorative article on that very subject. Pryce’s love life takes a few unexpected turns.

While it may sound more like a soap opera than a political statement, McEwan’s script cleverly draws parallels between the self-serving sexual machinations of the characters and what he may have felt Thatcher was (figuratively) “doing” to Britain at the time.

It’s interesting to note that the denouement, which features the three journalists covering the 1982 Conservative Party Conference, was surreptitiously filmed at the actual event (you’ll see snippets of Thatcher’s address) as the actors nonchalantly mingled with the crowd (begging comparison to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool).

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Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid –What I adore most about this 1987 dramedy from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts dread: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly (they don’t make ‘em like this anymore).

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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This is England – This film from director Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) was released in 2007, but is set during the Thatcher era, circa 1983. A hard-hitting, naturalistic “social drama” reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s, it centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance).

Shaun is a real handful to his loving but exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a struggling working-class Falklands War widow. Happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang, after the empathetic and good-natured gang leader (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him unconditional entrée. The idyll is shattered when the gang’s original leader ‘Combo’ (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. His jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals splits the gang into factions. Shaun decides to side with the thuggish and manipulative Combo, and it’s downhill from there.

As a cautionary tale, the film demonstrates how easily the disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate. As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex sociopolitical upheaval in Great Britain. As a drama, it has believable and astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned Turgoose and Graham, who positively owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

Play oddball: Top 10 off-the-wall sports films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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Okay, so you’re not particularly in the mood for the inspirational locker room speech, the decisive last minute rally or to cheer for the underdog. Perhaps your tastes lean more towards the cultish and the offbeat? No worries, I’ve got all your, um, bases covered this evening. Here are my quick picks for the Top 10 Most Off-the-Wall Sports Films:

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All the Marbles-A droll sleeper with Peter Falk as the manager of a female wrestling tag team. This was director Robert Aldrich’s final film (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen).

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The Big Lebowski– I admit that I am not as slavishly enamored with this Coen Brothers offering as its cultish devotees, but this is the sports film for those who sure as shit do not fucking roll on Shabbos.

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Bite the Bullet-Out of his myriad films, Gene Hackman has declared this unique western about a long-distance horse race to be his personal favorite. Who am I to say neigh? Richard Brooks directed.

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Caddyshack– I know a lot of people who worship this film. A tad over-praised, but Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight are well-cast, and ably carry the non-stop gags with their comic chops. Harold Ramis directed, and co-wrote with Brian Doyle-Marray and Douglas Kenney.

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Cockfighter– I cannot personally guarantee that no animals were harmed in the making of Monte Hellman’s 1974  drama, but it features a career-best performance by the great Warren Oates.

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Death Race 2000 (1975)- 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! David Carradine is a riot as defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters-Seth Gordon’s amazing documentary profiles some very obsessed video game competitors. You could not dream up characters like these.

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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-You know the rules. Two men enter…

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The Seventh Seal-Don’t give me that look. Chess counts as a sport.

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Shaolin Soccer-Shaolin monks apply martial arts prowess on the soccer field. This could only come from the mind of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). Hilarious, and packed with mind blowing stunts.

Prince of the City: RIP Sidney Lumet

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2011)

I was saddened to hear the news about Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today at the age of 86. We have truly lost one of the great filmmakers of our time. The term “actor’s director” gets thrown around a lot, but he was the actor’s director.

With a Lumet film, you may not necessarily expect a lot of stylized visual flash, but you may always expect a cast working at 110% of their potential. He knew how to tell a good story, without relying on bells and whistles-and that takes someone supremely confident in their craft.

In his 50+ year long career (he cut his teeth working in television drama during its “Golden Age”) he managed to collaborate with almost everybody who was anybody in the acting world; indeed many clamored to work with him. It is possible, however, that the most  fruitful artistic partnership he had over the years was not with a person, but a city.

That would be New York, which served as the backdrop for so many of his classic films. Woody Allen, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any other directors who have had such a symbiotic relationship with the Big Apple. At the end of the day, it’s about the work, so here are my picks for the Top 10 Lumet films:

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The Anderson Tapes-In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of  everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is  a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and an exemplary Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on the package.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead-It’s a testament to Lumet’s gift that his last film (which he made in 2007, at the age of 82) was just as vital and affecting as any of his best work over a long career.

Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an extremely ill-advised heist that involves a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). As frequently occurs in this genre, things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast.

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

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

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. There’s no fighting in this war room, but plenty of suspense. This no-nonsense thriller from 1964 takes a more clinical look at how a similar wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. The film’s haunting denouement is chilling and unforgettable.

Talky and a  bit on the stagey side; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and that trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with non-credited assistance from Peter George, who had also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

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Network– Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a “fictional” TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”.

Now, 35 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The  prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes deeper than  prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and “reality” television)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

In the opening scene, drunken buddies Peter Finch (as Howard Beale, respected news anchor soon to suffer a mental breakdown and morph into “the mad prophet of the airwaves”) and William Holden (as Max Shumacher, head of the news division for the “UBS” network) riff on an imaginary pitch for a news rating booster-“Real live suicides, murders, executions-we’ll call it The Death Hour.” A  punch line in 1976;  in 2011 we call it the “Nancy Grace Show”

The most famous scene is Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. It’s a memorable and inspired set piece.

For me, the most defining scene is between Beale and Arthur Jensen (CEO of “CCA”-wonderfully played by Ned Beatty). Jensen is calling Beale on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet still a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which to preach-the “corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen”. It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Faye Dunaway steals all of her scenes as Diana Christenson, the soulless, ratings obsessed head of development who schemes to turn Beale’s mental illness into revenue (“You’re television incarnate, Diana,” Holden’s character tells her.) With its “evergreen” relevancy, I think Network will stand as Lumet’s most enduring film.

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The Pawnbroker– Rod Steiger delivers a searing performance as a Holocaust survivor, suffering from (what we now know as) PTSD. Hostile, paranoid and insular, Steiger’s character is a walking powder keg, needled daily not only by haunting memories of the concentration camp, but by the fear and dread permeating the crime-ridden NYC neighborhood where his pawnshop is located.

When he finally comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of his soul, and the inevitable breakdown ensues, it’s expressed in a literal “silent scream” that is the most astonishing moment in Steiger’s impressive canon. Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin adapted their screenplay from Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel. Lumet’s intense character study is a prime example of the “social realism” movement in  American film that flourished for a period in the early 1960s.

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Prince of the City-Lumet revisited the subject of New York City police corruption in this powerfully acted piece based on the true story of narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got completely turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission.

Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.

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Serpico-Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino go together like soup and sandwich, and this 1973 collaboration between director and star (their first) was the one that set the table. Pacino gets to chew a lot of scenery here as Frank Serpico, an altruistic NYC cop who helps expose the rampant corruption within the department (much to the chagrin of his fellow cops, who come to regard him as a pariah).

As per usual, Lumet wrings top-notch performances from his actors, and makes excellent use of NYC locales (captured in all their gritty glory by DP Arthur J. Ornitz, who did the cinematography for a number of “quintessentially New York” films, including A Thousand Clowns, The World of Henry Orient, The Boys in the Band, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman). Writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler adapted from the book by Peter Maas.

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12 Angry Men-This is the film that put Lumet on the map as a feature film director. The narrative setup is simple. A Latino boy is on trial, accused of killing his father. His fate lies in the hands of a 12-man jury. Since we are not presented with many details about the trial itself, the film’s dramatic tension lies in the hands of the one juror who happens to hold a dissenting opinion (Henry Fonda). His subsequent attempt to bring the other eleven around to his way of thinking makes for an amazingly riveting drama (despite of how static it might read on paper).

The list of actors portraying the “angry men” reads like a Who’s Who of dramatic heavyweights-because it is (imagine Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley all cooped up in a hot stuffy room, and all very cranky-can you just smell the ham burning?).

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The Verdict– Lumet returned to the courtroom in this outstanding 1982 drama, armed with an incredible cast and a killer David Mamet screenplay.

Paul Newman gives one of his career-best performances as a burned-out alcoholic “ambulance chaser” who gets a shot at redemption when he takes a medical malpractice case to trial (after initially planning to take the path of least resistance by going for a quick and dirty settlement).

Jack Warden also shines as his best friend and fellow lawyer who helps him build his case (“That guy’s the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” Warden warns Newman, in a wonderfully droll Mamet line reading). James Mason is also at the top of his game as the opposing attorney. Charlotte Rampling is on hand as well, playing her duplicitous character with aplomb. Nice use of the autumnal Boston locales by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Encore! 10 more: Q&A, Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Offence, The Deadly Affair, The Hill.

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.