Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although generally somber in tone, there are laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor manner (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!). Nice ensemble work by Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright. McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg a small role. The powerful denouement really packs a wallop.

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

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

When Haber realizes to his amazement that George does in fact have the ability to change reality with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Haber attempts to make his own Utopian visions a reality, George subverts the results.

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

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. Don’t be put off by the low-tech special effects; keep in mind that this was made for public TV in 1979, on a shoestring budget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blowin’ Free: 10 essential albums of 1972

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

Consequently, the early 70s was an exciting and innovative era for music, which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of since. For a generation, this music mattered…it wasn’t just background noise or something to dance to.

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

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

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#1 Record – Big Star

Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was one of many hurdles they were to face during their brief, ill-fated career. Now considered a seminal “power pop” band, they were largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone). Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration.

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

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

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Argus – Wishbone Ash

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

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

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

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Can’t Buy a Thrill – Steely Dan

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

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

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

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Last Autumn’s Dream – Jade Warrior

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

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

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

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Machine Head – Deep Purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roxy Music – Roxy Music

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

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

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Something/Anything – Todd Rundgren

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

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

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

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Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

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

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

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Talking Book – Stevie Wonder

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

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

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

Bonus Tracks!

 

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Here are 10 more gems from 1972 worth a spin:

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 Movies about the Movies

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this and WWIII: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

-from “Living Though Another Cuba”, by XTC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“New Frontier” – Donald Fagen

“The Russians Are Coming” – Captain Sensible

“April Sun in Cuba” – Dragon

“Living Through Another Cuba” – XTC

“And So It Goes” – Nick Lowe

“Land of Confusion” – Genesis

“99 Luftballons” – Nena

“Red Skies” – The Fixx

“Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Leningrad” – Billy Joel

“Russians” – Sting

“Breathing” – Kate Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Over the hills and far away: 15 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2022)

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Saint Patrick’s Day is this coming Thursday, so I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations. Sláinte!

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

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

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

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

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

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem. It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comic in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations. An insightful and affecting glimpse at the human condition.

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

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I Am Belfast – I try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive for the indescribable when I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit.

I’m pretty sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (I know Cousins loves that movie, because he gushed over it in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). The lovely cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience  for patient viewers.

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In Bruges – OK, full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a somewhat lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, then a third… I realized that I like this film quite a lot (happens sometimes…nobody’s perfect!).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb and an adjective.

 

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

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Miller’s Crossing–his 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity.

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

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

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Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  Original full review

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

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

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his 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth.

After his daughter is nearly swept away by the sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

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

Baby steps: A therapeutic mixtape (redux)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2022)

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I hesitate to use the word “victory”, as this one is Pyrrhic at best; but…baby steps:

The families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting announced Tuesday they have agreed to a $73 million settlement of a lawsuit against the maker of the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six educators in 2012. The case was watched closely by gun control advocates, gun rights supporters and manufacturers, because of its potential to provide a roadmap for victims of other shootings to sue firearm makers.

The families and a survivor of the shooting sued Remington in 2015, saying the company should have never sold such a dangerous weapon to the public. They said their focus was on preventing future mass shootings by forcing gun companies to be more responsible with their products and how they market them.

At a news conference, some of the parents behind the lawsuit described it as a bittersweet victory.

“Nothing will bring Dylan back,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “My hope for this lawsuit,” she said, “is that by facing and finally being penalized for the impact of their work, gun companies along with the insurance and banking industries that enable them will be forced to make their practices safer than they’ve ever been, which will save lives and stop more shootings.”

President Joe Biden called the settlement “historic,” saying, “While this settlement does not erase the pain of that tragic day, it does begin the necessary work of holding gun manufacturers accountable for manufacturing weapons of war and irresponsibly marketing these firearms.”

While I was glad to hear the President publicly endorse the settlement, his encouraging words will likely do little to break the Congressional stalemate on pushing through any game-changing gun reform legislation. As the U.S. continues to lead the world in gun-related deaths, the time for action was yesterday (don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk).

Earlier this week on Democracy Now, host Amy Goodman interviewed gun reform activist David Hogg, who certainly didn’t mince words regarding this continued inaction:

AMY GOODMAN: David, first, I want to go to the morning after the [2018 Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School] massacre [in Parkland, Florida] four years ago. You were speaking with CNN and said — amazingly, at that moment, keeping yourself together, considering what you survived and how many didn’t — said action was needed right away to deal with gun violence.

DAVID HOGG [from 2018 archival interview]: What we really need is action, because we can say, yes, we’re going to do all these things, thoughts and prayers. What we need more than that is action. Please. This is the 18th one this year. That’s unacceptable. We’re children. You guys, like, are the adults. You need to take some action and play a role, work together, come over your politics and get something done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the day after the massacre that you had the presence of mind, David, to talk about what needs to be done in this country, given the horrific attack you had just experienced. Can you talk about from then to now, what you are calling for, what you’ve gone through? Thank you so much for joining us from school. You’re at Harvard now, a student in Cambridge.

DAVID HOGG: Yeah, you know, it’s amazing to look back at that and think about those things that have changed. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, in the couple of months after that, leading up to midterms, we changed gun laws in Florida, a deeply Republican Legislature that has a — basically, the NRA has a stranglehold over. Despite, you know, basically everybody in the establishment thinking it was impossible, we did change gun laws there.

We were able to force the hand of the Florida state Legislature to get over their politics and work together to actually do something. In the time since Parkland, we passed nearly — well over 50 gun laws at the state level. We changed the Dickey Amendment so that we were able to get the CDC to study the effectiveness of gun laws at the state level, and gotten them funding. And on top of that, we have, you know, some of the most pro-gun violence prevention candidates, at least on paper, ever elected in American history.

Now it’s about making them act. And the reason — the thing that we’re calling for right now is specifically for President Biden to do even more that is within his executive power to act to address gun violence. And two of those things are creating an office, a national office of gun violence prevention, and a director of — a national director of gun violence prevention, that can work together to create a comprehensive plan to address gun violence from the federal government and not create just a piecemeal piece of legislation that’s just universal background checks and one other thing or just universal background checks, but comes up with a comprehensive plan for the federal government to address gun violence, regardless of what’s happening in the Senate.

Here’s hoping that this week’s court decision will be a catalyst for meaningful change (although it hinges on the legislative branch of our government to do their part as well). Speaking for myself, my hands are all wrung out regarding this particular subject. As I lamented in a 2018 post I published just several days following the Parkland shootings:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

And so, four years later (to the day) I’m re-posting that playlist (slightly revised), because these songs remain timely. As Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.”

What Harry said.

“Bang Bang” – Green Day

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“In the Ghetto” – Elvis Presley

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Perfection” – Badfinger

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2022)

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Why not kick off Superbowl Weekend by watching some sports movies? I’ve put together a list of 10 personal faves for you. Hey…save some of that guac for me (no double dipping).

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Bend it Like Beckham –  Writer-director Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that entertainingly marries “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood energy. The story centers on a headstrong young Sikh woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her tradition-minded parents by pursuing her “silly” dream to become a UK soccer star. Chadha weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Sporting Life –Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 drama was one of the “angry young man” films that stormed from the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young, Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight star. Former pro rugby player David Storey adapted the screenplay from his own novel.

Extra innings!

Here are 10 more recommendations:

Any Given Sunday

Bang the Drum Slowly

Cool Runnings

Field of Dreams

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Natural

Raging Bull

Rocky

When We Were Kings

Please rewind: 80s Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2022)

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection (yes, I’ve hung on to a few), put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. Several of my selections remain criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (are you listening, boutique reissue studios?). Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.

Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she is to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm), which leads to a bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark subtexts; yet there is also sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley gives a nuanced performance that belies her age as young Alice, and the late Jim Henson works his magic with the creature creations for the fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers (VHS only)– In this 1984 drama, writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

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Light of Day (VHS only)– From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study (scripted by the director) concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.

Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock ’n’ roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated, but nixed).

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Liquid Sky Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with 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 (the alien is 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.

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One Night Stand (VHS only) – An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe (ahem). In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid  (VHS only)–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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Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 neo-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop  (VHS only) – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence.

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

Bolstered by a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft blend of belly-laugh hilarity and bittersweet emotion. Excellent supporting cast, especially Thom Bell, who injects humanity into an otherwise vile character. Sadly, the talented Lloyd never broke big; she went on to do a few relatively unremarkable projects, and then dropped off the radar.

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Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.